Govt shouldn’t ignore agitations for self-determination, says Kalu

Former Abia State governor and eminent businessman, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, is known for his frankness on issues. Kalu, who spoke with journalists at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, at the weekend on arrival from the United Kingdom, believes that President Muhammadu Buhari should be given time to deliver on his promises as he tackles Nigeria’s numerous problems. He also spoke extensively on the Biafra protests and other national issues:

What is your take on plans by some state governors to either sack or cut down on salaries of civil servants at a time many states are owing workers’ salaries?

It is a truism that all is not well with the state of Nigeria’s economy. The current situation, if the truth must be told, is that we are in dire straits. This times call for deep reflection and serious financial reengineering by managers of the public sector.

This requires creative, strategic and visionary leadership at all levels because the reality is that the resources accruing from crude oil sales are dwindling by the day on account of falling oil prices in the international market. Above all, leadership is about the ability to take the right decisions at the right time by putting the people first.

So, state governors should cut down on frivolous expenses in order to meet their financial obligations, especially workers’ salaries and payment to pensioners. If it means converting a portion of the security vote to fix serious responsibilities, it is worth it.

This is because many state governors allegedly siphon the so-called security vote. We must learn to live within our means as a way to sustain a decent life. Governors should leverage on other revenue sources to complement the federal allocation because the era of depending on a mono product economy is long over.

Don’t you think that in the face of dire economic realities, President Muhammadu Buhari and his team need to fashion out serious economic interventions or measures to revive the economy?

I cannot agree with you on this matter. In fact, any casual observer of the Nigerian economic situation knows that things are not looking up. As some observers have put it; the economic house is falling, and if urgent steps are not taken, we may be heading for trouble economically.

Put in a parable, we can situate the economic reality by seeing President Buhari as the manager of the economy, as a distributor who has distributed goods to his customers, he comes back to the market, all his customers closed the doors and he didn’t see anybody to collect money from.

He called somebody and said: Break the door but nothing was seen, so he went to all the shops, there was nothing again inside the shops, he didn’t see the goods he supplied and he didn’t find the money that the shop owners were supposed to pay. That is the dilemma of the president if I can say.

He didn’t tell me but this is what I feel. I feel strongly that it will take the president the next two to three years to sort out this problem, and Nigerians are always in a hurry and I am surprised. Change don’t come easy. What the President is doing is what he is supposed to do. The situation is only comparable to somebody who supplied goods and could not get money back.

How do you think the president is feeling in this dismal scenario you have painted?

The president should be having hypertension now and I am sure he is confused because the goods he supplied are still there even if he does not have his money.

So, that is the position the president is in right now. You know that I am not a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), so I don’t speak for them, what I speak is the truth and people should not be expecting President Buhari to perform miracles .

I am not a member of his party but he is a very close friend and you should not expect President Buhari to do miracles. I don’t expect him to do miracles, there is no miracle in this business, he has to take his time.

The situation is made worse because oil price has gone down and everybody is looking if there will be any slight change in the third quarter of 2016.

Nigerians just elected their President for change and they want to see the change immediately.

It is not possible. The president has to take his time, he has to take account of what he has seen and what he has not seen. From what I am hearing, they have not even started to ask questions about where our money went to.

So many people are saying that many officials still need to answer some questions. My reading is that President Buhari as our leader is very unlucky, he came to the saddle of leadership for a change during a very difficult time.

What is your take on efforts by the Buhari administration to recover looted funds by officials of the past regime?

I think President Buhari is on track in his efforts to recover looted funds by the past administration. The anti-corruption measure is not a drawback as some critics may want to see it.

Given the malfeasance that took place in the last regime, the President is handling the situation very well. It is not a drawback at all. Buhari should know, who he should call because there was massive looting.

Some people didn’t listen to some of us, when we shouted about what happened in the last administration. We said that there was corruption and the corruption that we saw in the last administration was very high. I told correspondents at the Lagos Airport in one of my interview sessions that there was corruption in the last regime.

Though I am a friend of former President Goodluck Jonathan, but I speak the truth, I told you people that I have never seen the kind of corruption I saw then in Nigeria.

People were carrying dollars everywhere. Journalists confronted me on why I can’t advise the former president and I remember telling them that beyond friendship, the country comes first. And you people asked me: Are you not a friend to Jonathan. I said yes, I am his friend and so what?

Our country comes first, and as I am still standing here, if Buhari is doing something bad today, I will caution him.

I wrote letters to President Olusegun Obasanjo; I wrote to Jonathan although it was not made public and I also wrote to Umaru Yar’Adua when he was president.

So, I am sure Nigerians will be patient with President Buhari. He might not do much in terms of infrastructure but he will clean up the system. There is a lot of cobweb in the system; the process I used to see when I was governor of Abia State, I no longer see; people should follow due process in doing things.

You know that business men like us are in a hurry to make money, but I am losing money. Paying the salaries of 10, 000 workers is not easy, so it is a problem, but we need to be patient.

How do you think the government can fix the system?

This calls for serious re-engineering of policies to rework the economy. We need to move away from dependence on crude oil receipts. I have been shouting for eight years that there is need to diversify the economy. At a point in time, I met my governor and I said that we must go back to manufacturing and farming. There is a large market in West Africa and nobody is talking about that. Nobody is talking that we can produce; nobody is talking that we can go to farm. Look at Nigeria still importing maize, palm oil. Can you imagine that?

What is your take on Buhari’s government approach in the fight against corruption?

I am convinced that the President is sending the right signal on how to fix the country by coming all out to fight corruption though his approach may need some modifications. I think Buhari should adopt the process methodology, not the personality or hate model.

So, I think the President should not do what Prof. Wole Soyinka proposed, when he warned former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Malam Nuhu Ribadu, about his approach of going for alleged suspects and their family members. Remember that Soyinka told Ribadu then that if he cannot catch a governor, he should catch his mother. I am confident that the approach should be radically different. President Buhari should not adopt that approach.

That was the practice in the past and people kept quiet. I was kept by the EFCC for two weeks. So, I think the anti-graft agencies should be thorough. The methodology adopted by EFCC now has changed. Now, suspects are questioned and told to go home.

Any day they want to charge them to court, they do that, which is a civilize way of doing things. But, it is not everybody that they will tell that because there are some who have to be detained to be able to get more information from and the money they looted. I am not saying that Buhari is totally not getting it right as to what they are doing, but the right process must be adopted.

Are you comfortable with the strategies adopted by government in fighting insurgency in the North- East, because if there is no peace, it may be difficult to attract investors into the country?

I think President Buhari is on track because he has adopted the right strategies by engaging sub-regional efforts to tackle the challenge of insurgency.

As part of the transnational strategies he adopted on assumption of office, he visited heads of state of neighbouring countries, including Chad, Togo, Benin Republic, Niger and Cameroon to secure the commitment of leaders of those countries on how to cooperate to stamp out insurgency. Former President Jonathan did not adopt this strategy. But, Buhari has secured the friendship of these nations to enable him get their support to fight insurgency. This is the way to go in tackling the problem.

This strategy explains the successes so far recorded. Recall a few days ago, Cameroon said they have caught some insurgents. So, the strategy is paying off.

What is your reaction to lingering agitation for self-determination by the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB)? Are you comfortable with the way government is handling this potential signal of Nigeria’s disunity?

First, I think the signals we are getting from the agitation are quite intriguing in many respects. But, as much as government should not disregard the agitation, the strategy of going violent by the agitators is not to be supported because violence in any form, has never been known as the way to resolve issues of agitation for self-determination. As a patriotic Nigerian, I believe in the unity and indivisibility of this country. As an Igbere man from Abia State, I love this country and will continue to push for its togetherness.

To be honest with you, those boys are right in their quest to agitate for self-determination. They have a right to demonstrate, for what they consider may be their right as recognised by the United Nations Charter for Human Rights.

But, what I do not agree with is the violence associated with the demonstrations, and the alleged killing of soldiers by the agitators. No commander-in-chief of any country will tolerate such act by any group no matter the issue involved. It is an affront on the state. If I were the commander-in-chief, I will never tolerate such brazen act of lawlessness and violence. Any group that kills one of my soldiers, I will invoke the law to handle such people.

Nobody, no matter how disenchanted, should think of killing any soldier or policeman in the name of agitating for a republic.

You cannot kill a soldier or policeman and get away with it. The United Nations charter gave them right to ask for self-determination, so it depends on the government to conduct a plebiscite. It is not a right of determination to go and destroy peoples’ properties, to go and destroy Nigeria Armed Forces.

The quest for self-determination should not be used as an avenue for criminality. Agreed it is a right, but how do you go about it. From the point of view of an international businessman, the agitators could express how they feel about self-determination. But, the question is: Are those rights really worth it? If I were the president of Nigeria, I will like to annex Benin Republic and other countries to become what I will call the United States of Nigeria that will include some West Africa countries. So, why should any government allow any part of the country at this material time to clamour for secession?

Those boys have a right to opt for what they want, but that remains largely conditional, if only the people in the affected areas are left to conduct a plebiscite, to say whether or not they want to go. It is something the United Nations has properly defined as a precondition for such agitation. This is what the people should do if they are no longer comfortable with their inclusion in the current political arrangement that constitute the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

President Buhari should be very familiar with this development, because the agitation by MASSOB has been there from time immemorial, it is not something new. If I were the president, I will consult and engage some high profile traditional rulers and some political leaders to go and ask the boys what they really want and what can be done to stop them from asking for this. What is the reason for this agitation?

If we take our minds back, that was how the insurgency of Boko Haram started. When the insurgents first started the killings, it occurred in a Catholic Church and as an adherent of that denomination, I vehemently condemned it. I said that by the time Boko Haram finish killing the Catholics, they will go for others. This was also how kidnapping started.

They were kidnapping white people and I spoke out, some people in the Federal Government abused me. I said when they finish kidnapping white people and there is no more white man to kidnap, they will kidnap us and that is what is happening in the country today. So, I will advise the Federal Government to resolve agitations by some people, who are seeking to opt out from the Republic. Government cannot stop people from such agitation, what is critical is how the issue is handled.

So, President Buhari as a matter of fact should set out to engage traditional rulers and leaders of thought with security and intelligence agencies on how to resolve this potential trouble. Resolving the agitation for selfdetermination needs an all-inclusive strategy, not use of force or carrying guns.

Government needs to engage the agitators and make them realise that it is ready to resolve whatever issues they have raised. I must also advise the security agencies that using force to quell the agitation for self-determination at this time is not the best strategy. It is a wrong strategy hearing people say that we will quench it by force.

We cannot quench anything by force because it is their right to ask for self-determination. Recall what happened in Eastern Europe, they used engagement strategy and not force. My take is that it is only a president that does not know what he wants that will want a section of his country to go. I think negotiation is part of democracy.

What do you think about the parlous state of roads in the South- East, which the Biafra agitators alluded to as evidence of neglect of the region by successive administrations?

Reasonably, this is a serious matter. The state of roads in the region is not good at all. Consider for instance, the Enugu-Umuahia- Aba- Port Harcourt Express road that has not been abandoned.

If I were the president, I will fix this road in the next two years to quell this recurring agitation. What about the Awka-Onitsha Expressway, it is not yet constructed, what about the Umuahia-Ohafia- Arochukwu road, leading to Cross River State? Government should fix these roads within a short time as part of measures to resolve the agitation. What about Arondizuogu-Okigwe Expressway? The road has not been fixed.

The government should also consider fixing Enugu-Makurdi road, it is not good that people are dying on these roads every day. It is because of these roads that I quarreled with the Obasanjo administration in 2001. I consistently drew attention to the fact that roads in the South-East, particularly federal roads, were in bad state and that government took that for granted. Look back at what I said over 10 years ago about the state of our roads, it is still recurring today and government is still playing politics with it.

To sustain the unity of this country, which is foremost, government should look at these issues and resolve them. That is the truth and it must be said.

Can you clear the air on insinuations that you are planning to defect to the APC as a friend and supporter of President Buhari to galvanise support for him if he wants to run for a second term in 2019?

There is no doubt that I am a friend of Buhari but I will tell you the truth. My mother is in APC, you know that Buhari is a family friend; he is a chieftaincy title holder in Igbere, my community; he was awarded a Coctorate degree by Abia State University, when I was governor in the state. This happened at a time the then president (Obasanjo) gave me a call that nobody should be given doctorate that day. We went ahead to honour Buhari with the doctorate degree.

The former president was opposed to this because Buhari was contesting against him in 2003. For me, the party one belongs to does not make any difference.

What is important is that the President is a friend of the family and if he handles Nigerians well, he is a young man as far as I am concern, comparing him to Mugabe. If Buhari handles the country very well, and he will be running for a second term in 2019, I will support him but, that is not a condition to join the APC. Membership of any political party is immaterial at this time. All that is critical is that I have access to the President any time. There is no time I told Buhari I want to see him that he has declined.

He is not the type of president that listens to businessmen, who are going around the corridors of power looking for business. Any businessman going to Buhari with the hope of getting business has missed it. The President has a lot of job in his hands. If I were in Buhari’s position, I will run for second a term.

That is the truth, there is no Nigeria president who didn’t ask for a second term but it behooves on Buhari to treat Nigerian people very well so that he can gain their endorsement for a second term bid.

What is your take on the issue of removal of fuel subsidy, which is affecting the oil and gas sector?

The President needs to be convinced to remove fuel subsidy because it does not favour the poor. The fuel subsidy thing is only of benefit to the rich. But, Buhari is yet to be convinced. In my opinion, removal of fuel subsidy will favour the poor, who constitute the thinking of the President.

Buhari thinks more about the poor, that is the truth. We need to continue to tell him that this subsidy is not for the poor; it is for the rich and I don’t blame him because the man wants to uplift the standard of living of the poor. He is a man who thinks more about the poor; he is a man who could have can bargained everything forhimself. Some business people, who are going to him think that he will give them business, they are wasting their time.

He is thinking about majority of those boys carrying the Biafran flag, he is thinking about all those people who are carrying guns for Boko Haram and how they can stop. I discussed subsidy with him, his answer was: What happens to the poor and it behooves on his economic team to look him in the face and tell him that honestly, Mr. President we must remove subsidy and it depends on Nigerians to also get on him and say that we must remove subsidy.

You don’t blame a man who is not a businessman like me, he never traded in oil. He is Minister of Petroleum, but I am not sure he knows basically that this subsidy is just for rich people who are trading on oil. It behooves on his economic team between now and the next few months or few years to convince him and say no, we will continue to lose money if you don’t remove subsidy.

What happened to your bid to become president of FIFA?

The truth is that I never aspired to be president of FIFA. But, some people know that I have the capacity to run the body. Mr. Sepp Blatter endorsed me, with many heads of state in Africa.

Even, Pele of Brazil endorsed me, with many powerful countries in Africa who wanted me to run. They wanted Nigeria to run for that exotic position, but as a country, we took it for granted. Pele could not have said Nigeria should run without narrowing it down to somebody. I will speak on FIFA more elaborately in the future. I will speak on why I did not run in future.

What plans do you have in place to bring Slok Air back?

Slok Airline is going to come back. You know that the case about the airline is before a Federal High court and I cannot really speak on it. We have taken the Federal Government to court and we sued it for N35 billion. If two people are fighting, it is only the court that will separate them.

The Ministry of Aviation planned to ask us to take back our operating license and shut up, but we have said no to such plan. We had 14 aircraft grounded for over one year.

That is a huge loss and the reason we are suing the ministry is to get our money back. For over one year, we did not fly, so we need our money back. We invested over N40 billion and we are only asking for N35 billion. We will stand by the decision of the court and we will pursue our case up to the Supreme a Court to enforce our rights and the damages done to our business.

We will exhaust all legal avenues to enforce our rights. Some people just think that the judiciary is weak. That is not true, the judiciary has saved us many times. I know that some judges are corrupt, but there is no segment of Nigeria that doesn’t have corrupt people. Slok Airlines will return to correct some deficiencies in the aviation industry, because we are very efficient.

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