Nigeria: State of the Nation - Our Leaders 'Re Dividing Us - Nwagbara

2 December 2019

Chief Joel Nwagbara, mni, will be 80 on December 4. The elderstateman, who has written his autobiography: Divine Designs, was second secretary at the Nigerian Mission to the United Nations, New York between 1966 and 1967, and one of those who did the paper work for the establishment of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on the state of the nation, how he survived the civil war, how to avert another civil war and how to make Nigeria take her pride of place in the comity of nations among others.

You will be 80 next tomorrow but you look 60, what is the secret?

I don't know whether there is any special secret. I think the first thing is you should pray for peace of mind, and you have your life organized. The greatest thing one should pray for is the grace of God. All these things are made possible by the grace of God but there are certain things we need to try to do. Don't worry unnecessarily, don't seek the things that are clearly beyond you, don't be envious of what other people have which you don't at the moment, and off course, you have to take care of your health. This has to do with what you eat, exercise, how much medical attention you give to yourself. Whatever your financial situation may be, if you take good medical care of yourself and have reasonable healthy diet and you do exercises you are likely to, by God's special grace, grow old and not look wretched.

What was your growing up like?

It was difficult, very difficult, in relative poverty; in relative ignorance let's say education wise. However, that time, there is a kind of joy to it, you really don't know that you are poor because everybody, as I grew up in the village setting, was poor and there was nothing to compare with. Almost everybody was illiterate or had not gone to school. Only a few had. You don't know what you don't have and therefore you even tell yourself that you are happy. Looking back and over time, it became clear that I was born in a very difficult circumstance. In finding your way through education, ability to pay school fees was a big problem for me. Those serious handicaps can slow you down in life. By God's special grace, you would find your way, but it would be a lot more difficult if you were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

At 80, looking back, any regrets?

I cannot say I have no regrets, I doubt that there can be a perfect life. Things can go wrong through our own fault or through fate. There is very little one can do about the latter. But looking back, I wish I had completed my education the way I started, the way it was going. So I take it as my fate, I wish it happened differently. This is my one regret (inability to conclude his bachelor's degree in History at University of Ibadan due to lack of funds).

What is your take on the state of the nation?

I have sentimental love and affection for Nigeria. That means whatever happens, there is no other place I can call my country, and if I have a country I should love my country. On the state of affairs as they are today, I can tell you that all is not well. I can even say very clearly that I am disappointed the way things are. The prospects don't seem to be good but I am optimistic.

I went to greater details in the book (Divine Designs). When I say all is not well, it just means that God has given us so much; human material and other resources are here and it is a question of harnessing them, getting a proper focus, direction and moving together. If we move together as a country, put all these resources to good use and we say to ourselves, we don't have to be poor, we don't have to be backward, that we are black should not be a curse, no matter what other people think, we can turn it to a blessing and it can be done in Nigeria.

I am really sad in the sense that I don't see that effort being made, I don't see that individual or group of people, who say we want to change this thing, we want to get together.

First of all, you have to have a nation. We are black people, we are in this black area for black people, we have the people who are intelligent enough, educated enough in any field of human endeavour or knowledge, we have it. It is a question of how do we put all these into positive use. It is not happening and everybody seems to or rather those who have been in leadership in the recent past or present time are focused on how they can share everything, how to split everything, how to divide us into camps and different families.

We should be one nation. If we can get that focus and the leadership, people who have that vision and lead us in that direction, I think they will have a lot of followership. But as it is now, what leadership is doing for us, especially political leadership, has been to divide us and tell us to belong to different camps. That will make the country fall to pieces, move backwards and you cannot achieve that forward, purposeful, united country, which I think is what Nigeria needs to be, a country we can be proud of.

From independence in 1960, has it ever been well with Nigeria?

The potential has always been there but we have not been very fortunate with leadership from the world go. When you say to look backwards to 1960, it was a reasonable good beginning. What I worry most about today are a level playing ground, inclusive government, merit system, multiplicity of opportunity for everybody not just the children of the rich. There was plenty of that then, but that was the colonial system.

The colonial system had a merit system and allowed you to emerge from whatever you were, if you are intelligent enough. If you had the ability to work and perform anything that was required of you, your right would always come to you, no matter where you were as long as it was your right.

Those things were there, Nigeria was well, but once it came into our hands (independence), my assessment may be wrong, it has been a steady deterioration. That is why now people like me are still aspiring to that kind of level playing ground, equality of opportunity, and inclusiveness.

I keep emphasizing that, regardless of where you come from, who your parents are or which tribe you belong too and what religion, everybody is entitled to opportunity according to your ability. Ability and achievements of individuals can never be equal, but let everybody get a chance, and nobody should wear a brand that will be a death sentence. It should be such that wherever you are as a Nigerian you should have a fair chance.

At what point did the deterioration start?

It is very difficult to say because my general assessment is that from then (1960) there was a steady decline, but if you want to get a distinction, it is probably the military intervention from 1966 when we had a long period of non-democratic system. I cannot say definitely that it made matters worse, but what I can say definitely is that military rule didn't change things much. I am not saying it made things worse. I cannot say that is when the decay or deterioration started. The military people came believing that they could change things but the divisive forces existing then and now remain stubborn.

You were in the US and UN between 1964-1967. What is your take on Nigeria's foreign policy?

Nigeria has had a very consistent foreign policy, which is based on Pan-Africanism or makes Africa the centerpiece. We are our brother's keeper, we must direct our energy and resources to peace and development in Africa and off course to be at peace with the rest of the world. The other part is economic diplomacy, that is using diplomacy to attract economic development and all the things that go with it.

It has been fairly consistent, I think that is a good policy and I cannot really fault what they are doing in the Foreign Ministry. What I am not very sure of now is the adequacy of the financial and political support, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is getting to pursue these policies and improve on them. What one hears from outside is that the financial support is no longer what it used to be, but as for policy itself, I think we are on the right track.

What is your take on closure of land borders?

That has to do with economy and economy is our life. The way I understand it, the closure of the borders is not a hostile act against anybody, it was for self-preservation, which is the first law of nature. Many things were happening that were detrimental to our economy and obviously it is the right thing to do.

Let us stem those flows that are adverse to our well-being and economy. Once we get everything under control, we will go back to business. I think the government is right, I don't know all the facts, but from what I know, as a lay person, I think it's the right thing to do.

On Nigeria's economy, security and democracy

On the economy, I am afraid mine is a lay man's opinion. I read economics but I am not an economist. Also I am not in the private sector to clearly understand the dynamics. The economy of Nigeria has a basic fault, and the basic fault is the near-total dependence on oil. When the international price of crude oil is up we are in boom, but when it is down we are in recession. It is almost a cyclical thing, it keeps happening. It suggests to me that there shouldn't be that kind of free flow, there should be some management. If the economy was properly managed by those who have the expertise to do it, it should be possible to do other things to cushion the effects of fluctuations in the oil business. They call it promotion of the non-oil sector. It is not happening. You don't see things happening that stimulate productivity especially local productivity. It seems to me that there is room to manage the economy in a way that it is more resilient, has capacity to develop on its own and not just fire-fighting. I don't think there is sufficient management of the economy.

On Security, I am not a military or security agency person and so, I don't know what the problem could be but obviously all is not well. When you find the way people have guns at their disposal, able to kill, maim and do things with impunity, one gets the impression that the government is not on top of its primary duty and responsibility of protection of lives and properties of the citizenry, you have to say that something is wrong.

I do not know what exactly it is but I can see evidence that something is wrong, which requires and demands necessary action of the law enforcement agencies so that people have a sense of peace and security to be able to go about their normal businesses.

On democracy, we have had very rich opportunity to be in the main stream of nations enjoying civilized and democratic system. We have had the opportunity because before independence, we had Awolowo, Zik and the others, who were singing the songs of democracy and with that brought independence. Then we had freedom of choice, freedom to decide who exercises power over us. We had good fertilization of minds through debates. But what came after that as everybody knows, is that struggle for power is no longer by healthy and fair competition, competition of ideas programmes and policies. Now we have all kinds of violence, some corruption in terms of buying and selling of votes, intimidation of your opponents, instead of healthy debate to convince the electorate that you are the best candidate for elective office. That is not happening a lot, what is happening is intimidation, force, violence to compel people against their will. So I cannot say that if that is what we have which is what I think we have as demonstrated two weeks ago in Bayelsa and Kogi, that we are doing very well. I don't think so.

On Hate speech bill at the National Assembly

Again, I speak as an ordinary citizen and adult who is politically conscious. I am not a politician and I don't know what is going on in the minds of the politicians who have proposed this bill. But from my perspective, I think that hate speech is bad. If something you say, whether true or false, is said to instigate other people and induce them to violence against somebody or some people, it is certainly wrong and bad.

Do we need the kind of bill that is on the floor now, and the penalties prescribed? I have heard many respected lawyers say that there are sufficient laws and books existing now which if only applied will take care of anything you worry about. There is no need to go to the extent of a new bill in duplication of what is already in existence and also the penalty is too draconian, I mean death sentence. This is what people say and I agree.

There are laws, let's enforce them. If they are not sufficient, then you can amend them and make them effective or see whether the people who are supposed to be enforcing these laws are failing in their duty and compel them to perform their duty.

From your book Divine Designs, you seemed to have enjoyed more instead of suffering...

I don't think you got it right. It is part of the story in my autobiography and why it is titled DIVINE DESIGNS. Every now and again I found myself in situations, impossible dead- end as if there is no hope and mysteriously, the way you don't understand, something happens, a perfect solution that you begin to wonder: I didn't plan this.

For example, there was a point I got to a place Emekuku, near Owerri, as a refugee, I had no money and I just found myself, by chance, that the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital was located there and the bursar of the teaching hospital turned out to be my friend, and he said, 'if it is money, don't worry about money. Do you have your cheque book?' I said yes. He said just write a cheque and give me, cheque exchange, any amount I wanted I collected from him. He will send the cheque to the bank I don't know how they did that, but money ceased to be my problem there and then. Even the Beatle car, it moved all the time because each time something happened and petrol came from nowhere. So it wasn't as if I had my own government and privileges, not at all. They were all provided by God. That was why this story became a story worth publishing. When you really read the book you find that there are many situations that happened in my life and solutions came in a way I never never ever thought of. I didn't even realize until I put the story together. So this happened, how did it happen? Even now I can't answer.

On comments that with herdsmen crisis, lopsided security appointments, rising divisions that Nigeria is heading to another civil and how to avert it

On what to do to avert another civil war, what do we need to do? To me it doesn't look like a difficult thing, it is a question for all of us. Let somebody or people begin to think about one country, one family of black people. When you talk about the major ethnic groups, why don't they know that we are all the same? The Americans, the outside world are seeing us as the same, wherever they see you whether in Africa, Europe or America they will treat you the same way. Why don't we treat ourselves the same? Let us make ourselves, repackage ourselves to be more respectable.

You cannot be respected if you have nothing to show, this is the way we have reduced ourselves. But if we say to ourselves, we can achieve whatever we want, organize ourselves, and demonstrate that we can make things happen, we will command respect. Look at the Asians, Japanese or Chinese all of those people, do you see where they are now? They have broken away from that general umbrella of underdeveloped or backward people. We are the only ones left. Why don't we Nigerians see ourselves as part of the black family, black skinned , which badly needs emancipation and upliftment by self-effort, that should not be dissipated in internecinal conflicts.

Advice to the youths

For the youths, I have a special sympathy. I am talking about a level playing ground and getting things right, it is not happening to them, my days were better. It is very sad that the young people in this country are trying what they can, what else can you do? Go to school and get your qualifications, then learn a trade or something. They are trying but the opportunities are not there and some of them are doing desperate things, trying to force their way our of the country, committing suicide and getting into crime. Those things should not be.

What do I have to say to them? Do not despair, do not give up, one thing that is constant is that life will always be a competition so long as we are human beings. So, you must make sure you are competitive. There is no day, no time that everybody will be equal in life achievements, I am going to emphasize hard work.

In spite of the current hardships, some are still getting there and it's not easy. When you hear some success stories you will wonder how they happened even to those who are poor, from poorer families.

Yes, there are obstacles on your way, what you must know is that they will always be there. It is a matter of degree. The solution to that is to stay focused as to what you want to be. You must have ambition and aspirations, then hard work. You must work, because there is no time hard work will be exempted on your way to success. So my short advice to them is do not despair, you are not alone, there are many others in that situation and it is not your fault but that of society and leadership. The sun will shine again and only those who are ready by making themselves competitive are the ones who are going to smile.

On NNPC's fulfilment of its mandate

My view is that NNPC is a great organization and has a huge potential for success. It has always had some of the best professionals in all fields of knowledge in the oil and gas industry. NNPC is a great organization. I know of the public perception of the company when it comes to transparency, but I know that whatever the short-comings, they are shortcomings that the organization is in the position to overcome and perform better whether we are looking at operational results by which I mean at exploration activities, refining, supply of petroleum products and others. What I know and say is this: if NNPC were left free of political interference and political activities from outside, the potential embedded in its professionals would be unleashed and we will see the long-awaited better results. That is because if you are left to operate commercially you have no option but to do the things that make the business operate at a profit. If you don't do business at profit, you cannot stay in business, and if you are going to do it at a profit, you cannot be wasting resources, you will be maximizing your revenue and minimizing your cost. Political interference is making it difficult to go along this direction .

Way forward for Nigeria

I want to emphasize what I said concerning the youths. We shouldn't lose hope, we should have high moral standards, let nothing lead you to crime thinking it is a short-cut to success.

As for our own dear country, I think I indicated it in the book, I am optimistic about Nigeria, in the end it may be a long time, it may not be in my lifetime, we will come out and be able to realize the greatness of this country.

To do that we have to change our ways, modern education, enlightenment of the ordinary people by education, let poverty not push the people to do things that they normally will not do, and people who go into leadership must have an obligation to cater first for the interest of the people, and forget a bit of their own individual things, and above all to see yourself as the country which has been made to liberate the black people of this world. That is my prayer.


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