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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Interview: “Don’t Blame Jonathan for high cost of government” – Sen Magnus Ngei Abe



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Sen. Magnus Ngei Abe

Sen. Magnus Ngei Abe, a former Secretary to the Rivers State Government and currently represents River South East Senatorial District in the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly. In this interview recently, the Red Chamber lawmaker – the Chairman, Senate Committee of Petroleum (Downstream) and member of the Constitution Review Committee chaired by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu spoke on several issues including the cost of governance, what to expect from the review committee assignment among other national issues.


As a member of the constitution review committee, which part of the
constitution do you believe need changes or amendments?

Thank you, I am not speaking as a member of the constitution review committee, but as a Nigerian and a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, the issue of constitution review is not for the committee, it is for the Nigerian people and the chairman of the committee, distinguished Senator Ike Ekweremadu has made it very clear that there are no go areas. Everything that the Nigerian people think
should be corrected, we should correct it and everybody understands that this constitution did not have the collective inputs of the people even though it is titled “we, the people” but the people really did not put it together. It may not be much different from what we want to do, but there is need for the country as a whole to look at the constitution and even with the benefit of our experience from independence till today to be able to say this is the kind of thing that works for us and this is the kind that does not work for us, so, here we can improve, here we can change things like this. The most important reason why I am saying this is that at the end of the day, basically human beings are here on earth, their concern; beginning with the basic ones is security. You need to be able to live your life without threat, you need to be able to look for your daily needs, comfort and conveniences without fear, You need to be able to leave your family and to be sure that they are safe and they will be safe when you come back, you need to go about the things that are important to you and all without an atmosphere of threat and the main reason and the existence of any country is the requirement
for security. Of course, once you are safe, the next thing is the place you need to live, you need food, comfort and conveniences and to be able to get all those things, you need a job or something to do that you can exchange for value so that you can get the things that you need. More importantly is our future. Every man wants to have a family and once you have a family, you have a job, the next thing you need to do is to prepare your children so that they too can have a life. You
give them value so that they too can exchange for better value as they grow up. So, they need to have education, health, these are the basic impulses that drive human beings. When people say hunger is the problem of Nigeria, I say no, hunger is everywhere, it is how you handle your hunger, even Bill Gate is hungry for something, maybe he is hungry for more money, a better world or better computers so there is no level in life where you get to where there is no hunger. The human capacity to always want more, to get better that drives everything.
Why I am saying this is because the reason a country is successful or not is how far it helps the broad generality of the people of the country to be able to pursue these needs, dreams and aspirations. How you organize a society so that a lot more people, everybody may not be able to meet whatever standard they pursue but how you organize a society so that a lot more people can pursue these things and have opportunities and avenues to pursue them. That is what makes it a
successful country. So, the first thing we need to do is to look at our constitution, how has as the constitution created a system, enables, protect or provide for the broad majority of the Nigerian people to pursue these objectives, not just a few, that is the question I ask. You cannot have a constitution that is immune to your
economy. That is not a working document because at the end of the day if the economy does not work, then the constitution will not add up. So, having looked at this our present constitution, my first observation is that the constitution was drawn up without providing some injection for production into our national life. If you look at the constitution, all the constitution talks about is sharing. Government will provide this, that in sharing office, things have to be shared
like this and that, but the key thing that drives the country is how we get these things to share, but the constitution does not take care of that. Except we are able to amend the constitution that provides incentive for production and disincentive for no-production, I think that we need to adjust the conversation to look at some of these issues

With the constitution you are currently working on, how do you think Nigeria has fared in the last constitution

Like I said, it is not the constitution, it is a problem of the pattern of relationship that we have established. It is not much different from the 1979 constitution. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is even better. The pre-military constitution were totally difference, all the regions had their own things. This present constitution has
centralized so many things that the states do not have flexibility to be able to forge different path. The advantage of a federation should be that the federating units are able to grow at their own pace, being able to bring new innovation, but if everybody is doing the same thing all the time, then, the main advantage of the Nigerian federation which is the diversity of the federation, we will lose that advantage of our federation. We should be able to run a federation in such a way
that everybody is not force to do the same thing. For example, if the Northern States do not want state police, the constitution should allow those that want it to have it. So, we should have a constitution that allows any state that wants it to do what is necessary, and also allow any to do what is necessary in their own society. Secondly, we should have a miner, linear federation. The federal government should specialize on certain things that are key to us, doing things together and those things that are not key to us doing things together. The
federal government should let us go and let us give those resources to the State. If you take a money for prison for example, the federal government can have its own prison because they have federal courts and federal laws, but the state have state laws, state courts, where are their own prisoners, they should be able to build a facility to incarcerate people who and legitimately and set their own standard for what they think prison life should be. When I was Secretary to
the state government, I went to Port Harcourt prison, I wept. People are standing outside for years with no bed and no place, in their thousands and
they are not well fed. How many people are dying in our prisons, who know, who check because the people in charge of our prisons are in Abuja. The prisons are scattered everywhere, what is their relationship with the prisoners, the prisons. But if you go to Oyo, the magistrate in Oyo, everyday, they are remanding people, where are those people? It should be the business of Oyo State to know how many people they are remanding, where are they, when are they coming to court, how do they come to courts. All those are local issues; they are not federal issues so why should prison be exclusive federal matter. It is not. So, there are a lot of things in the constitution. Look at the airport for instance, what is the business of the federal government building airports and maintaining them all over the country, it doesn’t make sense. Airport is a local infrastructure. If Lagos State government is allowed to build its own airport, I am sure they will build something that is better than Muratala Mohammed Airport. They have the economic base, trajectory to be able to sustain it.
Rivers State government can build a better airport than what you have in Port Harcourt. When you go to America, you land in Dallas which is not owned by the federal government, the JFK airport is not owned by the federal government. The airports are even owned by counties, they are not even owned by States. What the federal does is to regulate airport operation, if you don’t have this and that, we will not allow you to operate, once you meet the checklist, you run your airport and then, the federal government can now keep a small staff that will be very effective because their job is clearly defined. But now, you want to clear grass in Port Harcourt airport, you have to send a memo to the Minister, what is all that rubbish. This thing is going on everywhere and it is just dragging the country back. So, if we loosen up the federation and take some of these
resources that are here in Abuja shared it to the states, let people go and plan their life. That is what I think Nigerians should look at in this process of constitution reform.

What in your views do you think Nigeria need to attract investors and investments?

There is no magic to attract any investors and you don’t have to
attract investors, everybody is an investor. The money of Nigerians that is outside being invested in other countries, if you bring it into Nigeria system, what are you looking for investment for? The thing I keep saying to people, in today’s world, which goes to look for investors. Investors are everywhere, they are on the internet, there are investment advisers, and there are people who stay in the office till 11pm checking where to make investment. So, all you need to do is to make your place conducive for investment and investors will come. They are looking for where to make money. If you create a system that is independent and attractive, first there must be security, power, functional courts, and a legal system that works. People don’t go and invest in a place where you will file a suit in court. Why did Virgin leave Nigeria, because they had agreement with the Nigerian government that they will operate out of international terminal, when they had a dispute over the issue, Virgin went to
court, they were in court when a minister sent police to go and beat everybody and throw everybody out and the man said how can we operate in a country, you don’t respect your own agreement, you don’t respect your own courts, how can anybody do business here. So, when people leave with that kind of story and tell others, you will not attract investors. Nigerian companies are moving to other parts of the country and they are investors because they find that for you to drive your goods from Lagos to Aba, the road is bad and there are over how many check points on the road, but you can make those things cheaper in Ghana and bring it to Nigeria. People should be able to file a case in court and have idea when they will get last word from the court as judgment whether right or wrong, but there is finality. People should be able to make a projection, if I build a hotel here, on power this is what I will spend in one year, on staff, this is what I will spend and so on. This is my projection income, this is what I will make, but when you don’t have a system that will help you make a projection, how do you plan a business. These are some of the challenges we are facing in Nigeria. I think we should fix those things that are critical by making adjustment in the constitution. The federal government cannot afford to pay for security for all Nigerians. There is no federation in the world where only one government pays for security that is why it is a federation. We either have to decide if Nigeria would be a unitary State, let us say so. If it will be a federation, then, let us make it a federation and look for how to make the federation effective and that is what I think the Nigerian
people need

In that wise, what in your view ………

It is not my view, I am just saying what I think, in dealing with this constitution amendment, I am just trying to point out where the country needs to be. There are different routes to get us there. I am proposing one, if you have a better idea, put it on the table, anybody who has his own idea should put it on the table, but all we must realize is that except we make the federation functional, effective,
that actually delivers a quality of life to Nigerian populace, the beauty of democracy is working for the majority, but if it delivers to the minority, then, something is missing. How do we make the federation deliver for the majority? That is the question we should be asking. I think that how we can do that is to loosen up the federation, create competition.

Do you see the call for creation of more states realistic at this moment
in time?

My own people, the Ogoni people are also asking for a state, so, my
senatorial district is asking for a state, but I am not against any request for more state and that is why I say in this constitutional debate everything should be open. If you want more state, come and make your case, convince everybody as to how that will help to make the country better. But, what I know is that in 1974, Nigeria has 12 states or thereabout and the poverty level in Nigeria at that time was below 40 percent. Today, we have 36 states and the poverty level is over 70 percent. Nigeria was making less money in 1974 than what it is making today. So, does that convince you that the creation of more state actually translate into a higher living standard for the people, it doesn’t. it may build more federal houses, more houses of assembly complex, high court complex, it may built more university complex, as so on, but does that actually translate into a higher quality of life for the people. What will translate into a higher quality of life for the people is production. If those things are being built because people are paying more taxes and so the government is richer, then you know that the people themselves are already richer before the government got rich. So richer citizens mean a richer government, but in Nigeria it is other way round. A richer government does not necessarily mean richer citizens, but if the richer citizens are sustaining the government, richer citizens will mean richer government
because the government will be strong enough to go to the citizens and
collect its money. But the citizens are not strong enough to go to the
government and collect their money, so, it is something that we look at
very carefully. So, trying to create more government without creating more revenue does not necessarily help the people the way you would imagine that it would help. What we are doing in Nigeria is that because of the sharing structure of the country we tried to convince people, I am a senator, so, my people are supposed to be happy I am here getting their share, so, if they get one more senator, they should be happier. That is what it is. But my being a senator won’t
pay your children school fees for the majority of the people; it won’t bring the teachers to class in the morning. So, what they need is not senators, but more teachers. Nigeria is 50 and after 50, you should be able to look at the things you have done and the result you have got and then make adjustment to move forward.

Let us look at cost governance at the federal government level, are you satisfied. If no, what do think should be done?

I am not a commentator on cost of governance at the federal level. In Nigeria, there is no point commenting at one level, you should comment on it all around because the constitution provides for most of the cost that you find in the government, the constitution provides for so many agencies, commissions and all that, the constitution provides for federal and fiscal Revenue Allocation Commission that determines everybody salary. All those things are not cost by anyone individual. So, we always think in terms of the capacity of an individual to have affected the system, but we failed to remember that it is institution that actually provide for the pattern of growth or progress in a society. It is not the fault of anyone; it is the fault of all of us in Nigeria. So, if you want to look at the cost of governance, don’t look at only the federal government, the federal
government is blotted but then you have 36 state government, cumulatively, they might even be bigger than the federal government.
Then you have 774 local government areas, what is the accumulation, then you
have agencies, parastatals, commission, all these things are set up by the law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, you can turn around to blame the cost of governance on any one person. It is a Nigerian thing and unless we change the way we think and the way we relate with our country, this problem will persist. People will create more commissions because they believe that it means more opportunity to assist friends and family and try to reach out because as the
population grows and production is not growing, the problem will only
get worse, it cannot get better. We must do something to bring back production as a basis for our daily living, if we don’t do that there is no way 2 million barrels of oil will keep all of us happy because we are more than 2 million because with the population hitting 160 million, 2 million barrel of oil is peanuts, it can’t solve our problem, we must compel our society to produce. How do we get the people get up and make Nigeria rich, that is the challenge because now the people are sitting down looking at the government, it should not be that way the government should be looking at the people.

On the electoral system of the government, Nigeria seems to say it remains imperfect, what is your take.

My take is that we are the ones who make elections perfect or imperfect. It is not a problem for INEC or politicians; it is a problem for Nigerians. Having a free and fair election is not just about what you do on Election Day, it is about how you are brought up. I will give you example, how many of us go to a store and the attendant is attending to somebody and we wait for them to finish with
that person, even at the filling station, we don’t do that. Why, because we don’t see teaching the next person as wrong. But in another society, it happens to me several time, if you are abroad and you are at a store and maybe the attendant was not looking and doesn’t know who came in firsts and turn to serve somebody else, the body will say no, he came first, they will refuse because they don’t want to take an advantage that is unfair to the next person. How many people are ready to do that? So, when you take that behavior and translate it into
election, what do you expect? So, we need to teach our people certain
value that you don’t have to win at all cost, that integrity actually
come for something. But in this country we don’t reward anything
expect wealth and power and how do you expect people to value anything
above wealth and power. When it is election, whether they are in the
opposition or government, everybody just wants to win. Also another
problem is the reward system. If you are in another country and you
are a country, you contested an election and you did not win, you can
still win contract but here, the winning of the election is the winning of the contract. The two are together. But if we are able to break politics away from the economy, which was the way it was before, INEC alone cannot make elections, good or bad, it is the people who go and corrupt INEC staff and unless, we can and ready to change our attitude, things will continue the way it has been and it is not well and neat for the country.

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