Written by Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin
Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, president, Campaign for Democracy (CD) and founder Women Arise (WA), is one of the leading human rights activists in the country. In this interview with SEYI GESINDE, she challenges the current national leaders on the need to find lasting solution to issues threatening national security and speaks on other germaine issues. Excerpts:
WHat is your view on Islamic banking and its supposed threat to national security?
People should have the freedom to engage in any form of transaction, even up to the point of business transaction with religious undertone. The state should not give the impression that it is giving undue advantage to any faith against another. There should be equal opportunity and level playing field for all to operate. The religious leaders should not heat up the polity because people of different faith organisations do business and share profits. So, they should not use religion to divide the people.
But Christian leaders have complained about the country’s leadership and its tendencies to Islamise Nigeria. Do you see any indices pointing towards this direction?
If care is not taken, it can happen because of the way the present leadership is conducting affairs. Some people in this country are becoming so powerful that they just want to bring about anything at all costs. They want to bring in whatever pleases them and this is becoming increasingly dangerous.
If you look at it critically, you will observe that the kind of debate that goes on now as regards Sharia, Boko Haram and Islamic banking are issues that tend towards Islam as a religion. One would expect that in a secular nation, caution should be taken on issue of religion and all changes must be carried out with some level of citizen education and consultation with all stakeholders
What about the controversy the single term proposal for the presidency is currently generating?
The single term presidency should not be the priority of a government that is not yet 60 days in office, if not that there is a hidden agenda. It can heat up the polity and create unnecessary diversion.
The minimum wage and governor’s refusal to pay is another matter heating up the polity. What should be the way forward, bearing in mind that the bill approving the new pay has already been signed into law?
The governors are just being callous and inhuman; there are no two ways to it. The way forward is for the governors to pay the minimum wage. I strongly believe that the states can pay the minimum wage to workers, but they are just being stubborn unnecessarily. How do we believe that they cannot pay, when on a daily basis we read and hear of millions of naira they spend on mundane things; when we see the huge amount of money elected officials receive for doing nothing, whereas the workers who make the states tick live in abject poverty?
It is no longer news that governors loot the treasury and steal the people’s money. Immediately after the tenure of governors, you hear of several billions of naira they have siphoned from the states’ treasury, whereas workers are being owed salaries, pensions and gratuities are not paid, and the workers continue to be at the receiving end of the whole misappropriation.
The fact that the bill approving the minimum wage has been signed into law has made it compulsory for the governors to pay. So, what they should do is to strategise; cut down on all the unnecessary expenses, and improve on internal revenue drive. I believe that instead of heating up the polity with issue of minimum wage payment that could lead to strike and paralyse economic activities; they should just assure workers that they will pay.
Nigerians have on several occasions complained about the bogus pay of National Assembly members to the detriment of other players in the public sector. Do they really deserve this preferential treatment?
This is one issue that will continue to draw public attention and might boomerang very soon, if it is not checked. This is one sad case of people earning very fat allowance for doing nothing extraordinary. The bogus pay and the affluence of the law makers at the National Assembly have become an issue of concern. The issue is beginning to have recalcitrant effect on so many other issues – for instance, the minimum wage debate, the issue of social development, provision of infrastructure and so on.
The complaints of Nigerians over this pay are very genuine if one looks at the huge amount of money that accrues to these people on monthly basis. It is so high that one wonders how that came about and how it was approved for them. It is worrisome because we see that while so many Nigerians, more than 70 per cent, live below $1 per day , National Assembly members continue to live a life of affluence.
Other players in the public sector see the bogus pay of the National Assembly as a slap on their faces and so, they clamour for equal pay or treatment. At this stage, one could do nothing else, but to ask for the downward review of the National Assembly members’ pay.
The Boko Haram insurgence and series of bombing attacks that followed it is creating a lot of security challenge in the country. Where do you thing this can lead Nigeria to?
The Boko Haram insurgence portrays great danger for Nigeria. It is a very ugly development and it only shows to us that our security is very porous, loose and very unprotective. It has showed to us that there is the presence of terrorists in the country and that is a very dangerous development.
If care is not taken, the insurgence could cause religious clashes or even war. I am aware that a group just emerged now in Kaduna called the Akwota or something. The group was said to be combat ready; that for any attack of Boko Haram on Christians, they will retaliate. This development could escalate and cause attacks and counter attacks. This is why it is very essential for government to face the security challenge head long. It is important that security agencies should be alive to their responsibilities so as to curb the bombings and killings that are being perpetrated by Boko Haram.
It is certain that some Nigerians are behind the activities of the religious sect and the Federal Government must be ready to unveil these people and ensure that they are brought to book.
The Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) earlier issued a threat that any attempt for Boko Haram to spread its crisis to the South-West would be resisted with a counter attacks, should this just be waved aside as an empty threat?
Well, I do not think any threat should be waved aside or be seen as empty threat. The OPC, I believe, was set up for a particular purpose and if it thinks that Boko Haram is over-stepping its bounds by any incursion into the South-West and issued statements of that nature, it should be taken seriously.
Therefore, the security agencies should be at alert to ensure that such a thing does not happen. Security must be intensified to ensure that Boko Haram does not get into the South-West and to also ensure that the activities of the group is monitored.
Some Nigerians have complained about what they called President Goodluck Jonathan’s lukewarm attitude to issues threatening national security. How do you see this?
Well, whether it is a matter of attitude or not, it is a different thing, but what is obvious is that the president has been very lukewarm on the issue of national security. He has been very slow to take proactive actions on the matter and this allowed the issue to linger on, causing more havocs.
The fall in the living standard of Nigerians is pushing a lot of people to the streets. Is this not a pointer to the fact that Nigeria is joining the league of failed states?
There is no gainsaying this; it is so obvious; it is staring us in the face and we do not need to deceive ourselves on this all-important matter. The living standard has so fallen that we are beginning to see the symptoms of a failed state in all that we do.
Poverty is obvious everywhere, people are hungry, homeless and devastated. The streets are full of children and youths who have no hope for the future. People wear long faces at bus stops and street corners. We see aggression everywhere and value and respect have disappeared. Crime rate is so high — armed robbery, kidnapping, oil pipe vandalism are the order of the day. People can no longer afford three-square meal per day; basic commodities are very expensive, even staple foods have become unaffordable. All these are signs of a failed state.
The current leaders have to face this reality and stop fooling themselves, believing that all is well. All is not well and the state is heading towards collapse.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently made a public comment, referring to his successors as failures. Would you commend him for being that blunt?
They are all birds of a feather that flock together. They are ’10 and 10 pence;’ no difference.
Obasanjo himself failed woefully. The process that brought his successors to power were full of irregularities and corruption. How will they succeed?
Obasanjo never wanted his successors to succeed and he engineered it to be so. That is why he has continued to boast that his tenure was better than what obtained after him. He programmed it so by rigging the 2007 elections for the late Umaru Yar’Adua and his cohorts, and that is why they were unable to get anything done. Same is happening now because they are all the same bunch of politicians who are bent on ruining Nigeria.
Obasanjo deserves no commendation for such comment, in fact, he should be held responsible for our predicaments from 1999 to date. He and his allies have turned Nigeria to a ping pong game, killing the economy and making social amenities prostrate.
What should be the role of former leaders of the country in view of the current national crises?
Former Nigeria leaders need to be more concerned about the survival of Nigeria now, if they are truly statesmen. This is the time to develop a sustainable intervention to save Nigeria from the hands of greedy politicians who are never satisfied. One would not expect unpatriotic statements from them irrespective of their personal ambition. They need to bury their own interest in the collective and seek actions that will move Nigeria to the league of developed nations. They need to sacrifice their time and energy towards the ‘upliftment’ of this country.
How far with the civil society’s renewed call for the convening of the national conference?
Now, the civil society groups are organising again to start advocating for national conference with renewed strength and power to ensure that the national conference is convened. The national conference, if allowed to happen, is the only sure means or gate to resolving so many of the challenges confronting Nigeria today.
It is the only weapon capable of defining the continued existence of Nigeria as a nation state. It is the only instrument that can reverse the situation now from that of a failed state to a working state. And that is why it is going to be proposed again and massive campaign and support will be launched for it. It is certain that if a people’s constitution emerges from the conference, then, our living together and the structure of governance will be addressed.
What do you see to Professor Wole Soyinka’s recent call on President Jonathan to unravel the mystery surrounding former President Yar’Adua’s death with the FoI Bill?
Yes, this is needed for us to shape things. The situation where government officials and elected officials behave the way they like and go scot-free should be stopped. At least, if people get punished, then, it will curb others who might want to travel the same road some other time.
The entire situation surrounding the sickness and eventual death must be unravelled. Nigerians need to know all that transpired and that is why the FoI Act shall be evoked to get all information surrounding the death of the former president.