Why Nigeria’s next president won’t achieve much – Air Vice Marshal Anthony Okpere (rtd) –

Why Nigeria’s next president won’t achieve much – Air Vice Marshal Anthony Okpere (rtd) – The Sun Nigeria

By  Christy Anyanwu

Retired was the director, Operations, Nigerian Air Force headquarters, Lagos; Air Officer Commanding (Training Command), Kaduna; member, Armed Forces Ruling Council; the managing director of Nigeria Airways and minister of Aviation in (1986 to1987).

In this interview, he spoke about the state of the nation. Excerpts;

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2023 is pretty close, what kind of leader should we look out for, in case you are to counsel the electorate?

First of all, let’s pray to God to keep us alive. Personally, I don’t expect much difference from what is happening now.

Reason?

The simple reason being that as long as we operate the constitution we are operating now; I don’t see any change. It will just be a change of guard, but no radical changes in the way we do our things. The system we are running now is expensive and it’s too detached from the grassroots. Left to me, we should go back to the old system of parliamentary system. Let’s practice true federalism as far as I’m concerned. Let me give you a simple example. If someone uses a N100 million to pick up a presidential nomination form, what is the salary of a president in a year? It’s not more than N15 million aside from the allowances. In four years, that’s about N60 million. Now, you are taking a nomination form for N100 million, which means either you have to borrow or you have to steal or you have to be indebted to people to get N100 million to take the nomination form. So, when you become the president, you are beholden to certain sets of people. The system is being held hostage by few people as far as I’m concerned. I pity whoever the president is going to be, because he would not achieve much. Coming to the electorate, unfortunately, we are not enlightened enough to look at the future. These people came and make so much noise four years ago, we will do this, we will do that. How many of the things have been done? They dole out few naira and kobo here and there and some bags of rice and some people will still vote the same group of people and it’s the same song again.

Left to me, the system requires a structural change in the constitution to be able to get things going. We just look at the ways we are doing things and see what we have not done right. We should have that political will to change things around, but it’s not there. Today, we still fight over minimum wage of N30,000 a month which is not enough for one person to buy biscuits in a day. Yet, we all go to the same market, they have to eat, they have to buy clothes. Meanwhile, where they live they have no water, no light, no good roads. Yet, someone sits down and receives so much money every month doing what? As far as I’m concerned, as long as they have the political will to change the constitution around, it should be bottom up, not bottom down. I recall in those days when I was in secondary school. I was on the assembly line in the morning when I was called up that Western Region has given me scholarship to do my Higher School Certificate (HSC). I did not lobby. My father was nothing politically in the society to say Anthony Okpere you have gotten this. Then, it  was based on hard work and assessment by people. That’s a true system working. After all, we went to school in those days when there was no oil. It was only cocoa. What the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo did in the Western Region, is what eight governors are struggling to do now. Are we ready to go beyond what that man did? He was able to do that because he had the freedom to operate as a premier or as a region. Each region developed on its own for God’s sake.

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How do we get out of this incessant insecurity in the nation?

The problem of insecurity is everybody’s problem, not the alone. I must give kudos to the administration, past and present for their fight against insecurity. In the days of former President Goodluck Jonathan, you are aware that some of the Service Chiefs and some other people took the money that was supposed to have been used to purchase arms, this famous case of the NSC that got a lot of people into problem. If they are thinking of the security of the entire nation, should they be using that money for their personal aggrandisement? We are shouting today, Boko Haram, herdsmen, yes I agree, but let me tell you that a lot of our people are involved in this thing. Even the people connive with the kidnappers to kidnap people and share the ransom. So, it’s a money-making business. If we have to fight insecurity, it is the business of everyone not just few people alone. The security forces are doing their best, but they need the cooperation of the common man to be able to fight it. They need to join forces with the security people to fight it.

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In those days, what we know about herdsmen is that they go about with sticks. They are nomads. They move about from one place to the other. In my place, for example, some of them are so integrated with the community, they speak my dialect, they have even inter-married, and they have their homes. At Uremia, the chief of the Hausa people speaks my dialect more than I do. If there’s any problem, we call on him, we integrate, we rub minds to see how we can solve the problem.

For every human being killed, it heightens the insecurity situation. No human life should be lost. There has to be respect for human lives. They start blaming alone cannot do everything. They are doing their level best.

I give kudos to Jonathan administration, to the President Muhammadu Buhari administration over this insecurity. I feel sorry that things are happening the way it is. We, who are supposed to be normal, should stop behaving abnormally. You burnt down houses in South easternern states, does that help the community, does that help promotion, and does that help advancement? It is nine steps forward, 10 steps backward. All the churches, all the mosques, should declare one month of fasting and do it genuinely for God to intervene because these things have gone beyond human reasoning.

People are pointing out that these bandits are from the North, pointing at the Almajiris, do you agree on this?

I refuse because the children should not be stigmatised. Let them look at the bandits. These people doing these things have a reason for going about killing people and so forth. Apart from the force that should be used, I believe there should be proper intelligence network to fish out those who have been sponsoring these people within the communities. How are you sure our own people are not sponsoring them? You cannot be sure. Everybody is involved. It has nothing to do with the Almajiris. Almajiris have been on for a long time. Is it now that they sudden take up arms and ammunition?  Before you were born, there were Almajiris, before I was born, there were Almajiris. But the level of destruction in the country is beyond human reasoning, people are involved in this sort of thing, so, they shouldn’t stigmatise the Almajiris, they have always been there and they will continue to be there, as long as we worship money in this country and as long  as we don’t punish people who steal. You pat them on the back. Why? This is our common wealth, why?  This is money meant to build up the society, provide water, provide light, provide good education, and provide good hospitals.  Individuals are stealing these monies and nothing happens and they recycled themselves, they come back to become presidents, to be senators. Why should a governor finish eight years in office and then go to the Senate and we still clap for him, why? It is wrong. I have nothing against them as individuals, but I have something against the principle that brings them or the law that allows them to come in there and still remain as senators. Meanwhile, they have huge pensions from their states and they get money from as senators. So, make political office unattractive as possible. Why should they even sit 360 days in a year? They don’t need houses, they need guest rooms in Abuja, when they sit, they stay in the guest house and pay because they are paid sitting allowance, and they should pay for using the guest rooms and then go back to their businesses. Make politics as unattractive as possible. You will not see this rubbish we are seeing.  There’s a country in Europe even to serve tea to parliamentarians you pay for it. Is it Austria, they don’t have all these luxuries of aides, bodyguards, bullet proof cars etc. These are the same people you went to meet when you want them to vote for you. The moment you get in there you started riding in armoured cars with escorts why?  When you were looking for their votes you went to all the nooks and crannies, you sat with them, you ate corn and Amala with them but now they can’t see you. When you are passing you blow siren to clear the way for you.  When you were seeking for their vote you are not blowing siren.

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The system is faulty, the system is wrong. Even, the good people who are there, the system has made them bad. Take President Buhari for instance. The Buhari I know is somebody who does not take nonsense, but the system we are running will not allow him to exercise his discretion the way he would have done…. Under Buhari and the late Tunde Idiagbon as military heads of state when they introduced law against discipline. Were people not queuing up? If they don’t queue up, it is ‘koboko’ whip. We haven’t developed to the stage of what we are doing now. If the political system did not change, I’m sorry for those fighting to be governors. We need true federalism to function, let every state develop at its own pace, let the central collect taxes, there are lots of things they should let go and allow the states to go and solve their problems. Develop whatever it is in their backyard and develop themselves. We went to school with palm oil and rubber. Awolowo was able to do a lot of things, build a lot of things. Did we have oil when the first television started in this country? Why can’t the military rout the insurgent? What do you mean? The military is doing its best. The military can only do what they are doing if there’s cooperation between the military and the people involved (the civilians). We can’t be aiding bandits, supporting them and then you expect the military to come and do wonders. Somebody who stole your item is helping you to look for it, will you get it? You can’t. Those people are doing their best, they deserve all the kudos. Except you are close to them, you don’t even know the work they are doing 24/7 on daily basis to solve this problem. My heart pours out to these men and women who are out in the cold trying to solve this problem, but they need the support, the will of the people. Things have gone so bad in the country in terms of hunger, some people are ready to sell their children to make money, and it has come to that. People can hardly afford one square meal a day. If a person who cannot feed himself and his family sees one bag of rice given to him by a bandit, he will cooperate. Where there is hunger, anything can happen.

As former managing director of Nigerian Airways, how do you feel that we don’t have a national carrier?

I feel ashamed. I close my eyes. It’s a disgrace and there is no reason we shouldn’t. I recall when they wanted to sell that airline under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The current Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, was the Bureau of Public Enterprise boss. I recalled I called Tony Anenih, also a minister in Obasanjo’s administration then. I said they should look more closely into Nigeria Airways and try and salvage it. It was easy to salvage it for whoever who knows what to do then. All he told me was that Nigeria Airways is gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, gone. One evening, I was with the late Augustus Aikhomu in his house and I saw the pilot base being bulldozed by Babington Ashaye. These are people that slaved and worked for Nigeria Airways and to have ruined their lives just like that. It is very sad…And after selling, they liquidated Nigeria Airways and their allowances were not paid until of recent, about two years ago. Buhari was the one who now started paying pension and gratuities to people who were laid off by Obasanjo. It is evil, it is callous. Whenever I think about it, I feel sorry because we don’t really have the political will to get things going in this country. Simple example, anybody that gets any appointment in this country, the first thing they think about is how much money I will make from this appointment. It’s not the service of the community they are interested in, but how much gain they will make which is a big shame and it’s a disgrace. That’s why we are not moving forward. The hunger in this country is about to start. It has not started. Because right now nobody goes to farm because of the attacks of bandits.

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This is the problem we are facing. People are not going to farm again. By next year, a modu of garri will be three times the cost of what we are paying now. I don’t understand the system anymore. We have bandits all over this country, they are killing people anyhow. Before, when you heard that somebody was killed, it used to sound very strange, but nowadays, it’s the norm. You wake up in the morning and you heard so many people died. There should be no reason for that.

Recently, they announced we would soon have another national carrier, what’s your take on that?

I laughed when I heard it because it will not work.

Why?

It will not work because of the same political issues…We have been hearing that since. Right now, what we need is to support all these local airlines, Air Peace and the rest, buy them more planes, support them, and make them part of the national carrier, then affiliate them to an outside body. I wanted to do that long ago. In fact, before Kenya Airways started with KLM, Nigeria Airways was to start it and I wanted to affiliate it with either Lufthansa or British Airways, so they will carry our flag to where we don’t go to. Today, Kenya is all over the place. It would have been better because there was that national wing to do that.

How was your tenure in the Nigeria Airways?

I was the managing director from 1986 to 1987. Airways was a very interesting place and a difficult place for that matter. Every day, I keep on thanking my parents and my uncle for my upbringing, for that inculcation of being satisfied with what you have. You know there was a big probe in Nigeria Airways; nobody knew whether I was there or not. I faced the probe. The person who handed over to me was indicted, I was skipped. The person who I handed over to, Olu Bajowa was indicted, but my name was not mentioned anywhere because I don’t need their money. It’s on record. Not even an allowance I drew from Nigeria Airways while I was there. When I’m travelling abroad, they have to take care of my trip, but locally, I felt it’s immoral to get my salaries from the Air Force and also get salary from Nigeria Airways. My mind was that one day, I might be the Chief of Air Staff and nothing should dent my image. My name means a lot for everyone in my family. My name is a passport for them to go about. Not only in Nigeria here, but all over the world. So, why should I mess up myself with their money?

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