Ayo Obe is a legal practitioner with 40 years of practice in her bag. The name also rings a bell in the civil society circle. She is well informed about issues vocal with her views. In this interview with Assistant Editor, CHINWE MADUAGWU, she says “democracy gives you the right to choose those who will govern, but if you choose a government that’s not delivering, that’s your choice.
TNE: When you look at happenings in the country, when you listen to the news and read the papers, how do you feel?
I feel not too bad, but I think that there’s a lot of polarisation and there’s an extent to which people have been expecting to get the moon that instead of examining why we thought we would get the moon, they are blaming democracy, the system itself and you hear this expression ‘dividends of democracy.’ But if you choose a government that is not delivering, that’s your choice. Democracy gives you the right to choose those who will govern, but if instead you choose people for reasons other than their ability to deliver better life for you, then you should not complain. You shouldn’t blame democracy for it because it was your choice.
TNE: If I understand you correctly, the system is not the problem, but the people running the system?
Yes, it’s the people that we choose but at the end of the day, it’s not just the people running the system but the choices that we made, the things that we present as being more important to us than good governance, delivery of goods and services and so on. I think that we also fail to recognise that we are never going to get a perfect government, just as in countries that we consider to be Eldorado, such as the United States, Cananda or Norway, they also have elections every too often because they are not satisfied with what their governments are doing and therefore we should stake more urgency about the results of our choices.
Yes, I know that in an early return to this kind of system you will not get immediate changes. Some countries suffered under the same government for 40-50 years of the same political party without seeing change and so it’s not that I expect things to be perfect immediately but for me the concern is firstly that we are blaming democracy itself rather than taking our own responsibilities and certainly as I said we have become very polarised in our comments in the public space. In real life, I can meet somebody who supports one party or the other and I can have a perfectly civilised conversation with them. But in the public space, particularly with what’s been unleashed through social media, there’s a lot of intolerance of the idea that everybody is not entirely with you on every single issue. I think it is important that, just as in real life you rarely find anybody who is 100% evil or anybody who is 100% good, it’s the same in politics. But we act as though in politics that is possible even though at the same time we spend a lot time denigrating politicians and acting as though because they have been unable to deliver 100% of what they promised, then somehow they are evil, stupid, lazy, venial and greedy. I’m not saying that they are not incapable of having any of these traits but I think we need to be able to separate what is a result of their laziness, venality, stupidity, etc and what is a result of their policies and the way they have implemented them.
TNE: Let’s say this government has not been able to deliver 100% of what they promised, in your own assessment, how much would you say they have delivered?
I’m not going to put a percentage on it but I’m one of those who expected that this government would address the insecurity issue particularly against the background where the previous administration was absolutely indifferent to the suffering of the people in the North East, to the fact that they have been subject to kidnapping, that Boko Haram had taken over part of their property, that they were slaughtering school children and so on. There was that perception of indifference from the top and I remember saying even before President Jonathan came to power, during the time of President Yar’adua when the Boko Haram issue started to come to the fore, that it would be in some people’s interest for this “crisis” to continue because there is money to be made from it. Maybe I was being cynical, but in retrospect, maybe not because it proved to be so in terms of people claiming to be buying arms, flying planes full of money.
So, I felt there wasn’t a serious approach to it and when it did become serious what we saw was indifference. I’m not one of those who bought into the ‘we are going to fight corruption’ because to me, fighting corruption is not a policy, it’s what we should expect. But in view of the visible failing with regards to security, I expected that they would be able to tackle the security situation. And as regards the North East, I would say that this government has done better than the previous administration.
Definitely they have not defeated Boko Haram and the issues are still very much alive, but one didn’t expect that at the same time the issue of insecurity inside the country would be left to fester as it was. We all know that the issue of herders, settlers, farmers conflict is not a new one, but I don’t think it is an excuse for a government. And there after to blame the way it is reported as being responsible for the perception of it. The fact is that in politics, the perception is as important as the reality and if people perceive that the herders are being allowed to run rampant without very much intervention from security agencies, then it is a reality the government has to deal with. You hear repeatedly that no herders have been arrested, but herders have been arrested, herders have been tried, but if you are not managing the perception, then you are failing in that regard. And what is more, you are increasing the likelihood that people see that there is political capital to be made out of the herder, settler, farmer conflict.
And again, just as Jonathan used to complain that it was about perception and blame Bring Back Our Girls campaign of which I continue to be a supporter, I say what you need to do is take away what is making us complain. When you deal with the cause that is making us to complain, then there will be nothing for people to exaggerate about or at least, you will be able to put out your own story about how many herders that have been arrested, who have been tried, who have been convicted and people would be able to see whether it is all about the Inspector-General of Police not doing anything because he believes these are the President’s Fulani kinsmen or not. When you don’t tackle the problem at the root, to me that is an area of failing.
TNE: The Bring Back Our Girls campaign was one of the issues that brought down the Jonathan administration because a lot of people felt it was not handled properly. Now, this government has stayed three years and the girls are still in captivity. Do you think those girls would still be brought back?
Well, some girls as we know have been brought back. From a situation where 276 were kidnapped, we now have 112 who are still missing. We don’t know whether they are alive or dead. They have to be accounted for, that is the issue. It’s unfortunate that the former president’s spokesperson claimed that they had rescued some girls. We ask who are they, what are their names, what are their numbers? I suspect he must have been talking about the 56 who escaped during the kidnapping unlike what happened when the Dapchi girls were kidnapped. The girls were stuffed into the truck and hurriedly driven away at great speed through the night so that when they got to the stopping place they found that some of them had died. Five of them were said to have died during the course of that terrible journey which suggests that they needed to get them out of territory where they were not safe. When the Chibok girls were being kidnapped, the people who were kidnapping them went at leisure. They took their time so some girls escaped. Now a similar kidnapping of large number of school girls took place in Uganda at the hands of the Lords Resistance Army. They were kidnapped from a school run by nuns and the nuns followed the kidnappers and demanded that they should return the girls. They returned some of the girls and kept some but the nuns demanded to have all the girls returned to them. They told them to either go with the ones they had given them or they go with none. So the nuns took the ones that were offered. It took 10 years before the last of those girls was accounted for. So, I don’t think it is a matter of whether they would come back. What we need to know is that they are accounted for; are they alive, are they dead? We know that the last batch who came back left some of their class mates behind. So we know some of them are still alive. They have to be brought back. I hear this constant drip of propaganda, ‘oh, they don’t want to come back and all the rest of it. They’ve been in the hands of their kidnappers and abusers for four years now, you give them to their parents even for four months, let’s see whether they still want to go back. If they want to go back, it would be their choice. We won’t be talking about girls who were abducted because these girls were in the hands of the government, of the state and of the federal government of Nigeria which is responsible for the security of the citizens of this country and they were taken out of their care. So they cannot say ‘ah, forget it because they don’t want to return.’ No, first of all bring them back and let them say it. Also, this story that they are married and they are no longer virgins, I say if my daughter gets married tomorrow, even if she goes to live in Australia, she would not be able to contact me? She will not be able to see me? I would not be able to see her? I would not be able to speak to her? No, people who marry are not turned into none beings. So as far as I’m concerned, we expect to see the girls returned and I believe that, yes it has to be an issue in an election even though as we are sitting down here now, I cannot say what the alternative is, but somebody will come up with an alternative and indeed the issue of security is very much on the agenda in this election. We need to make capital out of the insecurity that we are facing.
I’m however, bothered about using the issue for cynical political gain because I think it is important for us to always remember that we are talking about people and their lives.
I was just remarking that the same kind of indifference and irritation that I felt coming from the Jonathan government in relation to the Chibok girls, is the same kind of indifference and irritation that we have from our current government in relation to Nigerians being reported as dying in the Mediterranean and so on and so forth. The numbers are not the same but, their attitude is ‘shebi they went by themselves and all of that’ and you hear it in the sort of statements from the presidential aides, ‘Nigerians should stop going.’ I think our government needs to do more than just issue commands and orders. Government always needs to move before something becomes an international embarrassment. I often get the feeling that what stirs our government to act more, is when the outside world criticises. That’s when the government reacts, indeed our President has a reputation of only speaking about Nigeria when he is outside and maybe it’s because when he is outside, he can’t escape the press. When he speaks or reacts, it’s now the perception that ‘the outside world is complaining therefore, I need to do something.’
TNE: You said you are not one of those who bought into fighting corruption as a policy, yet it was one of the major reasons which made people vote this government, how well has it done in doing that?
I agree that it made a lot of people vote for this government and to an extent, some of the things that they have said or done have justified their complaint because the levels of corruption that have been uncovered are really beyond one’s capacity to understand. You remember when Lagbaja was singing about Abacha’s loot and what it amounted to in Naira and Abacha was in 1993, we are still in that territory. You wonder whether we are making progress or going backwards. We are dealing with the same issues. It’s not so much that if an issue needs to be dealt with, we should in order not to say we are dealing with the same issue forget it. But where is the progress? I was at the Bar Association Conference in Abuja recently and I was on a panel with Chief Mike Ozhekome and he was very adamant that the corruption under this administration is worse than the corruption under the previous administration. What was interesting to me was the way people clapped and cheered at this statement. If one wants to be charitable, one could say, and this was an audience of lawyers, that they were cheering at his courage in coming out to say that. But actually, I feel that it was more that as long as we can say something against the government, then it’s good. But if corruption is indeed worse, it is affecting all of us. It’s not affecting the government. The worse that will happen is that they will be out of power, but it’s actually affecting us so what is there to clap and cheer? We in our attitude are not really on board with the impact of corruption on our lives and we think it is a game of chess that is being played somewhere and doesn’t have any consequences for us, but it does. That’s one part of the problem for me.
I may say that people make mistakes and quite frankly from the day this current President came to power, people kept saying nothing has changed and it’s almost as if for a certain group in the society, they don’t want anything to change. The propaganda has always been to sort of tell ourselves that nothing has changed even though in some areas it’s very clear that some things have changed. There’s no way you can get around the difference between what JAMB was returning before and what JAMB is returning now. There’s no way you can get around what the Ports Authority was returning before and what it’s returning now, but I think it’s also important that we have to interrogate the government. Is it all about personalities?
When the president came to power he insisted on using the same civil servants who were in the previous administration without affording them any ministerial guidance and directive. In fact, he said that it was the civil servants that do all the work. It’s the idea that ‘I’m a very good judge of people, I know who is corrupt and who is not corrupt, once I’ve put my seal on you, you can do no wrong, that’s why the President was taking so long to act over some of the glaring issues especially with regards to money in his government. But when you come in proclaiming that you are above suspicion, then any little thing that comes up, they say apparently you’re not and, of course, once you are found to be unfaithful in one thing, you will be assumed to be unfaithful in many. To me, the corruption issue was a problem. The government failed to say; ‘look we are all miserable sinners here, what we need to do is to make sure that no matter how miserably we want to sin, we have to set the systems that will make it hard for us to sin. We have to say, before you go and do your sinning, you have to deliver so much, like A-W, after that, you can go and do your sinning, but you have to deliver A-W first. Then you will be too busy trying to deliver A-W, because you can not deliver with the shoddy work we saw at the airport for example. You must deliver A-W in quality, then you can go and do your sinning. If you focus on output and the process of it, when that happens, you find that those things deliver more for you than just having money in your hand that you can hand out to voters or to would be voters.
TNE: 2019 is around the corner, you have noted that the problems lie with the people we choose and the way we choose them. Can you set an agenda for Nigerians for 2019 election?
I can’t set agenda for Nigerians because the things that are important to me may not be important to another person. I always weigh everybody on a scale on issues that are important to me. I don’t feel that I’m weighing Angels and demons. In the last election, because the Chibok girls issue was the most important issue for me, when people were saying Buhari is a dictator, my response was ‘look, I’ve been president of the civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), we know how to handle dictators in Nigeria.’ Dictators are not my problem, we know how to get rid of dictators but Boko Haram, I don’t know how to deal with people like that, so I want somebody who can deal with them. Now, some people say to me ‘come and apologise for telling people to vote Buhari.’ I didn’t tell people, I said this is what I have decided, my issue. When Buhari first came to power, my mother was part of the Jakande success story because she was a controller with LSDC which produced low cost housing for many people who before had never had it and so the incoming Buhari administration made it a point of duty and honour to rubbish the programmes Jakande had and, of course, my mother being one of people who handled the ‘first come, first serve project,’ was retired from office. So I’m not a Buharist by any means. But for that election I decided to vote him.
In this election, there are many issues that are going to come up and security may still be an issue. On the other hand, I have to say that when I look at the main opposition, when they are either pretending to have returned the Chibok girls or they are still running the line that it was all a scam that those girls were never abducted, that’s a problem for me. I would say that the last election was the first time I would vote for a winning candidate particularly at the presidential level. Ordinarily, my vote would go to somebody who is probably not likely to win but somebody who I want to encourage, whose party I want to encourage because I don’t want their party go the way of other parties that say if you can’t beat them, join them. But I’m also prepared for a situation where we dwindle into having majorly a two-party system as you have in many other countries. And to be ready to see within that narrow thing what can be done to improve the quality of life for the people.
If you look at our constitution, you’ll see that every political party is required to subscribe to chapter two, which talks about the goals of the country in terms of health, education, security and so on. To me, those ones are already there but how you go about achieving them is another thing. President Obasanjo has been boasting that he had it as a policy to create Nigerian billionaires, I wish he had told us that before he ran for elections, it would have been interesting to see how that went with the Nigerian people. I remember when Prof. Osinbajo was campaigning in 2014, and he came to Lagos, there were two things he said that surprised me. One was that he had been in a bus and when he had asked Lagos people what they would want government to do, he was surprised that people in a bus in Lagos asked about Chibok girls, which goes to show that the divisions that some people think should exist between the peoples of Nigeria are not as great as they make them to be.
The second is that he said that when he was in the North campaigning with Gen. Buhari, the shear fanatical support that the president was getting made him wonder how they would satisfy the hopes the people were placing on them and this led to the Social Inclusion Policy.
Again, I had my concerns and complaints about the grass cutting issue about which the President took so long to act. To me, the issue was not just did Babachir resign from the company before or a few days after awarding the contract. The issue was the inability to understand that instead of giving a contract and pocketing money, he could have mobilised people who were sitting idle at these IDP camps and given them some self worth, some sense of confidence that they are working and earning money, and that is creating an economy, instead of their coming, lining up and you’re giving them money, rice etc. I must say though that when I see also those relief materials marked ‘not for sale’ in the market, I feel in that regard that it would have been better people are given money to buy what they want than this pretence that we are helping people and you find that the items are given to favoured people. That’s part of what annoyed me with the grass cutter thing. The man didn’t want to give people the dignity of labour. We mouth these things about strong institutions but many governments in power don’t want strong institutions and when they get them, their attitude is ‘you can be strong but not against me and not against my people,’ and that’s why even though the trials of some of those people that have crossed carpet are ongoing, you still have this thing that the way to avoid your corruption charges is to move to the winning party and in this pre-election period, you can be sure that some people will be saying ‘wait, don’t talk about that now’ as if everybody is not doing the same calculation that we may not talk about it now but can we trust this man if he were to come back when he no longer has anything to lose or to gain. So if your winning depends on people who have crossed carpet and who have skeletons in their cupboard, it could be a difficult thing and it may not win you what you think. All of these go into the calculations, you look at the people in the administration, you look at the extent to which they are able to be effective in the administration and then you look at what are the options and as I said, a big issue is if we are to sustain a democratic system or rather the one where somebody seizes power and is popular for five minutes and then we have the long struggle of how do we get rid of this person for the next five years. So I would rather that as long as we all understand that the thing about democracy as we were able to do in 2015, is that you get to choose who governs and even in some states we were able to choose those who govern, I would say we straighten that out.
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