Prof. Ibrahim Gambari was the Minister of External Affairs between 1984 and 1985. He also served as Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1990 and 1999. The retired diplomat addresses a wide range of national issues in this interview with SUCCESS NWOGU
It appears that the Federal Government is having difficulties in repatriating looted funds from foreign countries. What is your reaction to this development and what is the solution?
We all know that it will not be easy to repatriate looted funds, but they belong to the people of Nigeria. The country in which these funds are located have their own reasons for the delay or, in some cases, even put obstacles on the path of repatriating these funds. However, it is up to us. We cannot give up. It is our money. It is our nation‘s well-being that is at stake. There are three main avenues that we have to explore; first is the United Nations. There is a Convention or Resolutions on the Repatriation of Illegally Acquired Funds in respect of the banks of the receiving countries. We have to explore the provisions. There is also the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes which has been assisting the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and our security outfits in the past. But when they felt that we were not very serious on the issues, they scaled down the cooperation. Recently, however, the Director General of the UNODC, Mr. Yury Fedotov, visited Nigeria and President Muhammadu Buhari received him. We have to pursue that avenue very vigorously since he had expressed commitment to assist us in the recovery of the looted funds. Second is the African Union which can be utilised as an ally in our efforts to retrieve these funds. The third avenue is very important. This is to strengthen bilateral relations in order to put recalcitrant nations on notice that they will jeopardise their bilateral relations with us, if they refuse to carry out a timely repatriation of these funds. My view on this is that the burden is on us and not on them, we cannot give up. We have to intensify efforts. Finally, we can seek arbitration and go to some courts as an additional resort.
Critics of President Buhari’s government have argued that the administration does not have an economic policy, given the current economic situation in the country. How do you think that the government can confront its economic challenges?
Many Nigerians are making a mistake of believing that all the economic problems confronting the country can be solved by this particular administration. Our economic situation, without really looking for excuses, is not something that can be confronted or resolved in one day or even in one month or one year. It is an accumulation of three factors. First, the fact that we are completely dependent on oil revenue which account for about 95 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings. When the prices go down, it does not give us the resources to pursue great economic plans. Secondly, while the income from oil was high, we did not see the need to save much so that our Sovereign Wealth Fund could have been reserved to help protect the nation for a rainy day. So that was what was inherited by the current administration. But having seen that the new administration has indicated the need to grow the economy as it is priority, it needs our support because we should realise that if we play with the human capital development of this country, we are really playing with the security and future of our country. In a situation where we have a growing army of unemployed youths, who are available to be recruited to do bad things, its important to attack the unemployment situation particularly among the youths. Also the need to diversify the economy is germane to our survival and progress as a country.
Frankly, I think the administration’s strategy could be better communicated in terms of coherence or something that will be clear to the people of Nigeria. For example, they should list out their priorities and explain what should be done now, and things that constitute long term programmes. They should also let us know the aim of each policy and programme and the result we should be expecting.
However, it would be incorrect to say that this government does not have an economic policy. It amounts to an unfair criticism of the administration.
Many Nigerians are lamenting that they are poorer today compared to when the Buhari government took over. What then is the effect of the change mantra of the All Progressives Congress?
Change has many dimensions. There is a change that is required by the government. There is a change required in the attitude of the people of Nigeria and there is a change in the economic sphere of the country. There is a change that has to be coordinated with the national institutions in our country – such as the civil service and the judiciary. I think one year in an administration is a calendar milestone. What the people of Nigeria should know is that the administration met a very bad situation but they are in charge now. The government should therefore let the people know too the direction they are going. They should come up with priorities and seek the support and cooperation of the people.
It is easy to complain. It is easy to demand solutions within a year but I think the important thing to do is to look at the direction which the country is going to see whether it is the right one. A situation whereby some people are still saying that they cannot see the direction in which this administration is going, after one year, is wrong.
We know that without peace, you cannot have development and freedom of movement. Security is a key dimension of the wellbeing of this country and on this, I think it is fair to say that the administration has scored a very high mark. Secondly, the impunity that has characterised our public policy at all tiers of government has reduced. If we did not get the revelations we have been getting, we would not have appreciated the damage these vices had done to our country, to our psychology, to our self-respect and dignity as a people. So I think we are on the right track and the leadership of the country is committed. Buhari is leading by example in the areas of security, corruption war and dealing with the issue of impunity. I think life will be better as long as we continue along the line which the present administration has embarked on.
You have talked much about impunity, are you satisfied with the anti-corruption war of this administration?
I think if you ask most Nigerians objectively, they will say the answer is yes and for the international community, of which we are part of, the answer is a resounding yes. My concern is that people may not be assuming their own responsibility but think that the fight against corruption is for Buhari alone to accomplish. No! One person cannot change the impunity that has characterised our public life, policy, and public corruption. It is impossible!
Everybody at the federal, state and local levels, the non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations; it is the fight for all of us. We must take our country back to the path of service and decency and restore our country’s dignity and self-respect. The only way we can do it is to join hands and team up with the administration.
Many Nigerians have criticised President Buhari for embarking on too many foreign trips. Do you see the travels yielding any positive results?
The President’s spokespersons have defended the trips. The Foreign Affairs Minister had also defended them. I am not a spokesperson for the government but I believe in this administration and I believe particularly in President Buhari. As a Nigerian, I believe that what we should be concerned about is not the number of foreign trips that the President took, but really, to begin to watch and evaluate what the benefits are to the country and we will begin to see the benefits clearly. For instance, a lot of agreements have been signed on repatriation of looted funds. Secondly, issues relating to the conflicts in the North-East and Boko Haram had been discussed with the European nations and our neighbouring countries. These trips are designed to get support for Nigeria. We should know that terrorism is not a respecter of boundaries. So, we have to cross boundaries and work with our neighbouring countries and those that live in the contiguous Central African Economic Community and the members of the African Union as a whole. The Commonwealth has become an ally and the United Nations is an ally. The G-7 Countries have become allies in the fight against corruption, terrorism and Boko Haram. It is the result that matters and not the number of the foreign trips that the President has taken.
Do you feel that those criticising Buhari of parading ‘below the average’ cabinet are right?
It is the privilege of Nigerians to evaluate their ministers but the question is, how long have the ministers been in office? How many months? First, we had a change of government from the Peoples Democratic Party to the APC. I think it is too early to hold such an opinion. Despite the election results, the previous government behaved as if the Buhari administration was a hostile takeover. People can form opinions and I know that the President has asked Nigerians to let him know if they think any of his ministers should be changed. It is good to be sensitive to public opinion but I think Nigerians should wait longer before forming a definite opinion. In any case, whether the person stays in cabinet or not, do not forget that the ministers are not elected, it is not like in the parliamentary system that the ministers are members of the parliament and are elected by the people. They are not elected. The President is the one that was elected and ultimately we have to hold him responsible. He appointed the ministers and he must have been evaluating them and at the appropriate time, he will decide what to do with any of them.
Do you agree with those who say this government was not prepared for governance given the economic situation and the direction of the country now?
Did you ever think that the price of oil will fall this low? I think the current president has had the longest ambition to serve this country as the president. No other Nigerian has contested for president four times. So, each time, he has contested on the platform of a political party that has an agenda and manifesto. I think it is not right to say they were not prepared. But they may not have been prepared for the kind of things they saw upon taking over; the level of corruption, degradation of our national values, even the decline in quality and performance of civil servants. I think those were the things that were surprising. Or those were the things that they were unprepared for. But the President has been elected and he is over one year in office now. We just have to give him the necessary support and allow him more time to perform. I believe that he will deliver on his electoral promises with the full support of Nigerians, our neighbouring countries and true friends of Nigeria in Africa, Asia, North America and the international community as a whole.
Many Nigerians believe this government may have deceived them with propaganda during the campaigns with promises that still have not been fulfilled…….
(Cuts in…) In one year? Let us be serious. All the campaign promises to be fulfilled in one year? Now what are the campaign promises? If you ask anybody, what are the three main things they campaigned for? Security in the country, anti-corruption and growing the economy. I think it will be right to say that especially on the first two, nobody will say they are not on track. They can do better of course. But in one year, looking at the efforts and performance of this government, one can say that on the security and anti-corruption war which they have promised the country, they have made tremendous progress. But the economy is a work in progress. So, we will just have to see what their priorities are and help them to deliver those priorities. Particularly helping the most vulnerable part of the country with social security programme and a diversified economy, taking cognisance of rural development as a priority and employment; these are the keys.
Prominent people and groups have called for restructuring of Nigeria for it to work. Do you agree with them?
They have a right to call for restructuring and any other measures which would make Nigeria more united, more peaceful, more just and prosperous. The President has spoken on the 2014 National Conference and I think Nigerians should continue to speak. I believe that he is a listening president. He will listen to Nigerians. If you look at the National Conference Report, there were three segments. The first set of recommendations contained the things that the Executive can implement within its own confines; those are policy issues on many aspects of our national life. The second segment contained those recommendations that require the National Assembly to legislate on. And then the few issues that require constitutional amendments which means both the state assemblies and the National Assembly have to agree on how to go about it.
There are a variety of things that can be done and should be done just to make our country better. Of course, we are not at the same stage of political development with the United States but we borrow some elements from their system. They passed constitutional amendments and they continue to form a more perfect union. Nobody can say any country is perfect. So we have to continue to try to make incremental improvement. We should all work for a united, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria. Nobody should be contented until that happens and we are not yet there.
Do you think that publishing figures of monies recovered without mentioning names of the looters portrays the government as serious with its fight against corruption?
The lawyers are divided on this. But the important thing is to get the looted monies back and use them for the purposes they were intended in the first instance. Let us not lose sight of that objective of recovering the loot and making it work for the people of Nigeria from whom they had been stolen.
President Buhari’s government has been largely seen to be aggressive in the fight against corruption while abandoning other aspects of governance. Is fighting corruption all that should be done?
The President is not a magician. However, just like a magician, his administration has to throw many balls in the air and ensure that none falls to the ground. That is why corruption is being fought at the same time as fighting violent extremism of the Boko Haram and other threats to the peace and security wherever they occur in Nigeria while ensuring that growing the economy is a huge task that must be accomplished. In all these efforts and activities, the support of the people of Nigeria and country’s external partners are of great importance.
Do you think Nigerians who are angry with this government are justified?
What would anger accomplish? Constructive criticism; yes, but anger at this point in time, no. Indeed, when corruption fights back, it comes with it inciting anger and resentment against the government. These negative actions should be exposed for what they are. Nigerians know who are responsible for abuse of office and impunity and they also know the few who are truly committed to their welfare and the nation’s progress. They would not choose to follow the former. This is not to imply that times are not hard especially for the working class people of Nigeria but a nation is built on present sacrifice and commitment for a better tomorrow.
What is the best way to address the resurgence of militancy and blowing up of pipelines in the Niger Delta which has threatened national and even world economy?
There has to be a combination of force and dialogue. The new terrorists must be physically crushed in their violent acts to interrupt the lifeline of our country’s economy. At the same time, the voices of reason in the Niger Delta which is growing — especially pointing to the damage that is being done to the already fragile environmental condition of the oil producing areas – must be encouraged and their legitimate demands addressed. I feel confident that these latest acts of vandalism and violence would be subdued and the conversation about constructive ways to move our country forward would continue not only in the Niger Delta, but also in the country as a whole. After all, as the saying goes “Nigeria is the only country that we can call our own” and who would salvage it except ourselves through collective action towards a fair, just and more prosperous country?
No fewer than 30 additional political groups have applied to the Independent National Electoral Commission for registration as political parties. Does this not indicate the possible dissolution of the main two political parties in the country?
My first reaction is the more the merrier and in the course of time, the political water will find its own level. Freedom of association and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights, guaranteed by our constitution. And when the election season comes, the voters will decide which candidate belong to which party is serious enough to warrant their support.