The vice-presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the 2019 election and former Governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, speaks with OLUSOLA FABIYI and MUDIAGA AFFE on the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2023 elections and other issues
Q: How would you assess the way the Federal Government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: The COVID-19 situation has brought to the fore the cumulative effects of bad leadership over the years in the area of poor health infrastructure, inequality and so many other ills in the country. We have poor health infrastructure that was not created overnight. It also showed where we are in terms of development and that we are performing below expectations.
Q: Who is to blame for this?
A: I have said that it is (to be blamed on) the cumulative effects of leadership failures over the years. All of us that have been leaders over the years should share in that blame. You cannot pick who exactly to blame, but if you look at the measure of development that is universally accepted which is the Human Development Indices, among which is life expectancy that bothers on health; while globally it is 75 years, in Nigeria, it is 54 and this means that we are 21 years below. If you look at our infant mortality and health infrastructure, we are not there. The second is education and the third is per-capita (income). So, looking at all these indices, you cannot tie the blame to one person or the other.
Q: How do we address these critical challenges?
A: We need to sit back and appraise the situation. Where are we today? If that is clearly stated, then we would define where we hope to get to and how we got there. So, everybody – the populace who are the passengers in this vehicle – must know that destination and know that the drivers, who are the leaders, are driving to that destination. If you look at the clearest measure of human development (HDI), we are number 157. It is categorised in three ways: high, medium, and low. The question we should ask ourselves is where are we in this categorisation? We are placed low, if not very low. So, if my target is to be at the medium level in the next few years, then we should start, for instance, to address the issues of poor budgeting in health and poor infrastructure. In the past 10 years, our total budget for health is about N2.7tn, and using the various exchange rates, it came to about $9bn. Last year alone, the second biggest economy in the continent, South Africa, had $17.1bn as budget for health. So, what we have spent in 10 years is just about 50 per cent of what the second biggest economy is spending in one year. That budget of $17.1bn, when divided with the population of South Africa came to about $308 per person. Let me again bring you home to the second biggest economy in West Africa, which is Ghana. Last year, the budget of Ghana for health was $1.2bn, which came to about $41 per person. Nigeria’s budget for health in 2019 was $1.2bn, which is $6 per head. So, in South Africa which is the second biggest economy, per head in the health sector is about $300, while in West Africa, the second biggest economy is about $40 per person. It is clear where our problem is coming from. It is left for us to decide which way to go.
Q: Are we doing well in the area of education?
A: Again, the situation in this sector is unacceptable. Let me take you beyond Africa and compare us with other countries with the same population. In Indonesia, which is the highest Muslim-populated country in the world, the country’s education budget for 2019 was $48bn for a population of 250 million people. Nigeria has about 200 million people and our budget for education is about $2bn. So, you can see the crisis that we are facing. We can go on and on and you will see that there are gaps all over the place. Every other country that we are competing with has four per cent of their Gross Domestic Product as the education budget, while ours is not even up to one per cent.
Q: But recall that we borrow to augment the funding of our budget. If we have huge budgets for all these sectors, how do we fund them?
A: I am not against borrowing, but I am against borrowing for consumption. Budgets are funded globally through borrowing. There is nothing wrong with that because nobody prints money on its own. If we borrow for investment, there is nothing wrong with that. It is morally irresponsible, the worst form of corruption, for you to borrow and consume and leave the payment for the future generation. This is because you have impoverished them. But if you are going to borrow to invest, it is allowed globally, because the more you invest from borrowing, the better your economy.
Q: Which areas are the best for the investment of borrowed money?
A: It is proved that the biggest return on investment today is education. The more educated your people are, the better your development. The second one is health, because the more educated and healthy your people are, the stronger your economy. There is nothing wrong with borrowing. What we need to do is to put a law in place that if we must borrow, it must strictly be for investment in areas of growth. These areas are education, health, and support for businesses, especially micro, small, and medium enterprises. Countries that have done that have a robust economy. Examples are Ghana, Kenya, Vietnam, among others. In 2010, Nigeria’s overall debt was less than 10 per cent of our GDP. Our GDP then was $370bn, and our per-capita income, which is a critical aspect of HDI, was $2,325. In 2019, our borrowing has moved from below 10 per cent of our GDP to near 30 per cent of our GDP, which means that we had tripled the debts. Our GDP now is somewhere within the region of $390bn or $400bn, while the per-capita income is now below $2,000.
Q: What does that show?
A: It shows that we borrowed for consumption. So, it did not impact the growth because they were not interested in that. In 2010, Ghana’s GDP was $32bn, while their per-capita income was $1,310, but today their GDP is $54bn while their per-capita income is in the region of $2,200. So, you can see the difference, they have almost doubled their per-capita income. There is nothing wrong in borrowing, it is where you throw the money that makes the difference. Singapore, which is another exceptional example, owes more than 100 per cent of their GDP, but there is a law in that country that says all borrowing must be for investment for the future. In borrowing, you must be transparent. Everybody must know what we are borrowing and what it is meant for. Our leaders spend government money as if they are doing the citizens a favour.
Q: Would you say the present government is borrowing for the right reasons?
A: Well, I am just giving general examples. It is for you to judge.
We are borrowing for the railway and others…
The question is, do we need to borrow for them? We can try to raise money from the capital market here to do some of these projects which will make it even more effective because if we raise local capital, it means the debt and ownership will be local and they can question what is happening.
How do we address the problem of our dwindling revenue and dilapidated infrastructures?
There are so many countries today that will say crude oil has become a curse to Nigeria. It brought a curse to us to the extent that people stopped thinking, no innovation. Everybody just waits to get money to share. That is why we have said let us restructure the country. Let everybody go their way and become more efficient, competitive, and be able to manage their resources and we will have a country that is functional and competitive. The oil will not save Nigeria. All we need to do is to do the right thing. The countries that are doing very well globally are not making money from oil. Vietnam, for instance, makes money from other sources apart from oil. Our oil revenue in 2018 was about $18bn, it was not up to the total revenue of Facebook for that same year, which was $57bn; and it was that money ($18bn) that everybody was going to share. We have talents that will create such companies, so, we must take part and invest in them. The world is moving fast to a knowledge-driven economy.
In the $22.7bn loan that has been approved by the National Assembly, it was discovered that none of the listed projects is in the South-East. Does it not show lack of equitable distribution of projects across the zones?
For me, it does not matter which area is going to benefit or not because of our mentality of sharing. If we restructure the country, we need to get people to work. Nigeria is like a car with a faulty engine, we need to fix the engine first. If the car is working, I would not mind where they are borrowing to invest. When we had regions, nobody knew where the other region was borrowing from. Rather, all the regions were simply trying to do what was right.
So, are you advocating a return to regionalism?
Well, I am not just advocating, I am saying let us have true federalism where each area or state is a land of its own that can manage its resources and pay tax to the central government.
Can that be done with the present arrangement?
It is very simple. We must find a formula because what we have now is not working. So, we can sit down and discuss how to do it.
Are you saying we need another constitutional conference?
We need to find something that can work. What we have now is not working and we would need to check that out ourselves. Even the leadership style is not working, so, we need to do something to improve on that.
Q: They say every country gets the leadership it deserves. Do we deserve the leadership we have in this country?
A: Yes, in a way because it is elected by us.
Q: But you people have a way of rigging your way in?
A: Well, you can only rig if the citizens allow you to rig.
Q: But do politicians not rig with guns?
A: Nobody wants to die but anyhow you must die. You could die while defending the votes or be killed by hunger.
Q: The race for 2023 has begun, what are your expectations?
A: For me, that should not be our priority for now. There are all sorts of things. Considering what the world is going through with this COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on the future of our country. However, my position on the election is that we must change our leadership style.
Q: Some analysts believe the South-East should produce the next President while some other zones are clamouring as well. What is your position on this matter?
A: My position is that the clamour for the South-East is that this enterprise belongs to all of us and it is only fair that we should be allowed to participate in it. Above that, I will still come back to the fact that the car has an engine problem, so, changing the driver might not be the most important thing, let us fix the engine. Yes, agreed, we need to make everybody feel that they are one family. You could see everywhere that they have abandoned us (South-East) in terms of even federal character and every other thing. We have every reason to feel unfairly treated.
Q: What do you think will happen if the South-East does not get the Presidency in 2023?
A: I do not know. I wish I could. Nobody knows because we do not know what will happen.
Q: Some believe Igbo people cannot be trusted…
A: I do not want to go into the issue of trust, but if there is one region or group that should be trusted in this country, it is the Igbo people because they are the only ones who mean well for Nigeria. We go to every part of this country, settle down and build houses.
Q: But some other Nigerians have accused Igbo people of not selling land to non-indigenes. How true is this?
A: It is not true. We have trusted other people for a long time, so, let them trust us.
Q: But there is a view that Igbo leaders are not united when it comes to taking a common decision. How true is this?
A: Let me tell you, there is no section of this country that is united. The North is not united, South-West is not united, and the South-South is not united. So, no place is united. We want to be supported first and we will deal with the rest on our own.
Q: Are you interested in the Presidency in 2023?
A: That is not my worry for now. My worry is for us to start this journey in the right direction and come out from where we are. Look at the level of poverty that we have found ourselves in. We are now the poverty capital of the world. In the year 2000, Nigeria was a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals. By mainstreaming into that system, China was able to pull 439 million people out of poverty. India was able to reduce theirs from 276 million people to less than 76 million. The consequence for us is that in Nigeria we have more people living under poverty than in India and China. The two countries have a combined population of over 2.7 billion people, whereas we are just 200 million. So, what is it that they did that we cannot do? That should be more important than the issue of who is occupying the office of the President or governor.
Q: But if we don’t look at who is occupying the seat, don’t you think we would keep doing the same thing?
A: Yes, I agree with you. That was why I said let us look at the leadership. Let us look at the records of people who were there yesterday. In China, for instance, they look at your records. If you are in a society that does not reward hard work, sacrifice, and merit, you cannot get there.
Q: If politics is a game of number and there are only five states in the South-East. Now, don’t you think a region that has seven states will always have an advantage over others?
A: That is where they use other considerations other than merit. If you use merit, it does not matter. I lived in the United Kingdom for years and I had a viable business. They did not bother to know where I came from, all they looked at were my records and performance. So, if I go to the bank to request a loan, they look at my records and grant it. If we (Nigerians) still use only that method (number) to get our leaders, it simply shows that is why we are where we are.
Q: What about lobbying?
A: All those things are there. It does not sacrifice competence, capacity, capability, or merit. We were just talking about states borrowing money; If only we listened to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who advocated that we saved money in the Sovereign Wealth Fund because the money was there in the Excess Crude Account. She said we should save $10bn from it.
Q: But governors like you then fought her…
A: Yes, today, we that fought her are the ones celebrating her for that sacrifice. In every other country, people were saving.
Q: The governors claimed then they could save their money…
A: Where are the savings now and how many states saved? If we had saved in our SWF, we would not be going to everywhere to look for even $150m. If we had done it then, we would have had not less than $15bn in that account, and taking $5bn from it now would not have meant anything.
Q: We have 13 million children that are out of school, what danger does the rising cases of Almajarai portend?
A: It is something to be worried about. The assets of countries today are the educated people and the more we educate the children, the better for us. The power of China today is the Chinese people that are educated. We have issues of agitation all over the place. The more you invest in education, the more the economies will open up and those agitations will stop. So, what we need to do is to invest in the uneducated people.
Q: Some people do not believe that the government is saying the truth about the COVID-19 situation in Nigeria…(cuts in)
A: Yes, it is so because we have got to a level where people no longer trust each other, it’s not just about the Federal Government. Look at the states and local government areas, people have been deceived. In fairness, the political leaders have not been truthful to the people. So, why would they believe you?
Q: What is your relationship with the governor of your state?
A: I do not want to comment on my state. My prayer points every day are focused on my family, Nigeria and my state. Just those three prayer points every day. It is important. I have always wished the state well because I was governor there for eight years and I sacrificed whatever I could to make it better in the areas of engineering, health, education and fighting poverty.
Q: Would you say your successor is building on those successes you recorded during your tenure?
A: People should judge, I should not be the one assessing him. I can only tell you what I did. Leave it to those whose business it is to judge.
Q: Does it mean you are no longer very passionate about your state?
A: I am, but not to the extent of comparing myself with my successor.
Q: Is there hope that the PDP will win the next governorship election in your state?
A: Well, we would go there and campaign. It is the people that will decide.
Q: But you will campaign for your party and convince the people…
A: Let that time come.
Q: With what is on the ground, is there hope for the PDP in Anambra State?
A: We would discuss that when the time comes
Q: But the election is just a year away…
A: A year in politics is very far. So we still have Edo and Ondo to talk about. One year is like 20 years in politics.
Q: With what you did for your state, why were there dissenting voices, especially in the South-East, when Abubakar Atiku picked you as his running mate?
A: It did not show in the election result. Forget about what happened when I was picked, look at what happened when the votes were counted. The PDP had the best result from Anambra State in the whole country. We got 95 per cent of the votes cast in the state.
Q: Do you think we should have an age limit for whoever wants to be President of Nigeria?
A: Personally, no. Look at the US, those who want to be President in the next election are over 75 years
Q: But they are in countries where things are working…(cuts in)
A: Let me tell you, we have had young people in government before, especially as governors, some of them lost it. Let us look at competence and capacity. Yes, age is a factor, but there are times where someone who is 75 is healthier than someone who is 50. Age should not be the primary issue.
Q: What can be done to improve insecurity in the country?
A: This is in two ways. The greatest weapon to fight insecurity is economy. You cannot have 40 million unemployed people or living below poverty without having security challenges. The more you get people out of unemployment and living in poverty, the more the level of insecurity is addressed.
Q: So, are you saying that without improving on the economy, security measures like the setting up of Amotekun and others will not have any effect?
A: They are all part of improving the economy. Regional policing is critical because it boosts the effective management of the people. There is nothing wrong with that, we need it. It is something that can be enhanced and supported. But above all, you must create an economy that is working.
Q: Will you still run with Atiku in 2023?
A: I do not want to comment on that.
Q: Are you interested in being the driver?
A: I can be part of it in any way. When you talk about drivers in politics, no one person drives alone.
Q: So, will it be correct to say that Mr Peter Obi does not have any political ambition?
A: No. (But) what is important to me now is to have a country.
Q: Nigerians want to know your relationship with your successor?
A: I have a cordial relationship with everybody in my state, including the governor. I am the first to rule for eight years and the first to even hand over to a politician in Anambra State. Before me, no other governor went for the inauguration of a new governor in the state. Chief Jim Nwobodo did not go for the inauguration of his successor. I am not looking back because Anambra has not paid me N1 since I left office, not even sachet water.
Q: Just last week, the President signed the Executive Order for the implementation of the constitutional provision for the financial autonomy of the judiciary and legislature at the state level. What does it portend?
A: For me, we are the only country that has a diminishing return on assets. The law I want to see is that which says if we must borrow, we must have a purpose for it and that it has to be an investment. If you must borrow for something different, it must be paid before you leave the office.
Q: How do we curb waste in governance?
A: One of the greatest challenges of the Nigerian government is waste in governance. There is too much waste in governance. From my experience as a governor, the office of the governor was costing the state about 20 per cent of the total expenditure. It includes all sorts of things including the office of the first lady – these are things that should not be. To address that, we started putting percentages in different sub-heads. For instance, road construction, 15 per cent; education, 12 per cent; health, 10 per cent and by the time we finished all these, the office of the governor was no longer costing us more than five per cent. The office of the governor became the poorest office and people no longer wanted to see me in office. I recall I once had a meeting with the then Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Primate Peter Akinola; and when he came to my office on a Monday I was alone, nobody was waiting to see me, he was surprised. Most times, I was alone in the office; people were no longer interested in seeing me.
Q: Why was it so?
A: This was because if you came, we did not have anything to offer you. So, those who used to come on a courtesy call expecting to get something when they were leaving stopped coming.
Q: How were you then able to win the second term as governor?
A: It was the people. The ordinary people chose me for another term in office, not the elite who did not want to see me. I was impeached from office by the elite. When I was chosen as governor, the elite were totally against it, and unfortunately, the youths who were supposed to be able to change the situation were being bought over by them with money.
Q: It is believed that most of these monies used by the governors in Nigeria are from security votes that nobody questions, how do they use the security votes?
A: Well, I cannot talk about it now because I am no longer in government. But now that things are tough for the country and states, it is time we put everything on the table. Let us know the complete budget, including the security vote.
Q: When you were there, was there security vote?
A: There is nothing that any governor is doing today that I did not have. The difference is the quantum and usage and like I have said before, even without looking at any document that I left behind seven years ago, I can give you an account of 75 per cent of how we spent the state resources. I can tell you where all our money from the excess crude account went to, all the money from the subsidy, Paris Club refund. When I was there, we gave those who graduated with first-class degrees in university and Anambra State citizens N1m each. Such money was taken from the security vote.