It was a chance meeting but it was worth the opportunity. Dr. Peter Gregory Onwubuasi Obi, simply known as Peter Obi, is the Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, LP.
You cannot begin to discuss Obi in terms of education without becoming a bore.
Is it University of Nsukka; Lagos Business School; Harvard Business School, Boston, USA; London School of Economics; Columbia Business School, New York, U.S.A; Institute for Management Development, Switzerland; Kellogg Graduate School of Management, U.S.A; Oxford University, Said Business School; Cambridge University, George Business School? Where do you start from?
Obi pontificates a lot and it sometimes verges on effusive sanctimony about a sense of knowledge. Some Nigerians are not comfortable with that but he moves.
However, he can be forgiven, having served on the Federal Government or National Economic Council Committee on Minimum Wage; Negotiation with Labour on Subsidy; Committee on Mass Transit; Committee on Natural Resource; Committee on Power Sector Reform; Committee on Sharing of MDGs Funds; Committee on Accurate Data on Nigeria’s Oil Import and Export; Agricultural Transformation Implementation Council; Sub-Committee on Needs Analysis of Public Universities in Nigeria: or Review Committee on the Power Sector. His participation in those committees suggests that he would be versed in the issues. But this is now a presidential contest which is not just about being cerebral.
In this interview, Obi speaks about the coalition to take back Nigeria. He discusses a number of issues in the little time we had.
You have consistently maintained that education is the bedrock of development. Now, let’s look at this ASUU issue. The President reportedly gave his education Minister a two week ultimatum to resolve the issue. What’s your take?
What we have on our hands is a situation that requires presidential intervention. The minister that has been given an ultimatum has not just been appointed to oversee the education sector. It is not that he has just been drafted to do the job. This is a job that has not been done to deliver on an outcome that is desirable, so, giving an ultimatum to your minister is like saying, continue to talk as they’ve been doing?
President Buhari is the one on whose desk the buck stops. He should sit with ASUU and engage and resolve this matter. If he can sit with party leaders over presidential primaries and get a result, he should sit with ASUU and ensure that this strike comes to an end.
Then, our political leaders, too, should please take this matter very seriously.
A situation where we have local government councillors and chairmen and assembly members earning much more than professors is not ideal. Education is key. The President should take charge. The same things goes for the looming food crisis. Our President should spend the remaining nine or ten months to take personal charge.
NLC has threatened to embark on a solidarity strike this week?
The President should pay serious attention, personally, to the ASUU strike. The most important investment a nation can give to its citizens is education.
And for Nigeria, it is even more critical because today, Nigeria is one of the worst, globally, in terms of human capital. We are 152 over 158 and I’ve always said it that when we talk about the infrastrucrure that is going to drive development, the first infrastructure you need is the human infrastrucure. You cannot talk about physical infrastructure unless you’ve dealt with human infrastructure and education is key.
Today, we borrow money and borrow labour from China. What that shows is that you’ve not built your human infrastructure – and it’s like you’re not building your future. So, the President needs to take control immediately. And the issue of health, education and pulling people out of poverty are the most critical agenda for development and he should take control of it forthwith.
But, recently, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, reportedly said the President has given him the mandate to wade into the crisis of ASUU?
I wonder what that means. Our children have not been in school for months now. It also happened in 2020. The global average for tertiary institution intake is about 38% . In the Western world it is 50%. Nigeria’s is 9% – we are not even a quarter of the global average. Our team has tried to engage and study, even if for knowledge sake, the issues around ASUU, because you need to explore and study what the issues are and we have our own ideas of how we can be able to invest and do more about education at the basic level and how we can support the tertiary level to ensure that we have something better. Our team cannot imagine being on the seat for three months and we will have the issue of that magnitude and I wont engage personally. Even as a governor, we had a similar issue and I had to personally engage ASUU which is why we resolved it in Anambra State and our state university is on.
One of the major issues in the crisis has to do with funding.
Funding, yes, but not funding alone.
The relationship between both parties is very weak. If you have an agreement with somebody, even if it cannot be achieved 100%, 100% effort is still required. So, trust is important. Usually, governments don’t achieve everything globally; but you can see 100% effort being put in. You can see intention, commitment to fulfill that agreement. That is what has been lacking and you see us going into all sorts of agreements, policy formulation without regard to implementation. If people see the effort, they will shift ground. But when they do not see hope, they become rigid. That’s where we are now.
What gives you the confidence that you, too, cannot become a victim of ASUU crisis like Buhari? Because, when you hear the federal government’s side of the story, it evokes sympathy for the FG?
Look, this was an agreement signed in 2009, and you’ve not been paying; everybody will be adamant on full release. It’s like somebody you’ve starved of food for long and it is your duty to provide food. Now, you say you want to provide the food and you’re bringing what we call ‘swallow’ without soup and saying, be thankful first. Things don’t work that way.
Once you sign an agreement, there must be an effort and intention to redeem the agreement. There must be engagement in a trust-like manner.
My former Head of Service wrote an article, ‘Stinginess as a development strategy’. When I started cutting some allowances and waste, many civil servants were not happy; but once they saw that their leave bonuses, pensions and gratuity were being paid with the savings, the people began to develop trust and that was how we did it.
Lets get real, with the cash crunch and the Covid-19 challenges which adversely affected everything, can government afford what ASUU is asking for?
It is all about intention. Government can afford it because, of course, if we can find money for subsidy – which I think is fraudulent because we must know how much fuel we consume. You cannot find money to pay the corruption-laden subsidy and say you cannot afford to pay for health, education and pulling people out of poverty. These are more critical issues. You cannot say you can’t find money for security but you can find money for subsidy. Are you saying that fuel subsidy is more important than educating the people, making them healthy and securing their lives? There must be something wrong somewhere. Let’s do what is proper.
The running mate to the APC presidential candidate said you do not have what it takes to govern Nigeria, that may be you can only be president of Igbo nation?
I’ve heard all sorts of things from people and some are statements that should not be made by people who are in leadership position. One of the presidential candidates once said a section of the country will not vote for me and now another one. Such statements, for me, debases the polity and questions the unity and the love we should have for each other.
INEC has stated the qualifications for contesting the elections which I’m sure I’ve fulfilled and I do not know the special qualification his principal, the APC candidate, possesses that I do not possess and I think I’m more qualified than his principal for that office. Is it age qualification? Is it education? Is it in terms of being an etrepreneur? I believe that anybody can be more qualified than me. But I’m qualified. His principal is a two-term governor, I am a two-term governor too. I’ve managed public resources comfortably and effectively to the best of my knowledge. I’m not saying other people didn’t do well. I’m not saying others are not qualified. But I’m saying that if we look at what we have been able to do in the past, I’m very very qualified to be the president of the country. Unless there is another qualification unknown to law and the public. Such statements are statements that have made us bring people who are not competent and people who are not qualified to lead us and that is why we are where we are today.
I’ve heard people say ‘Obi can make a good vice president to be in charge of the economy.’ But Nigeria’s problem is the economy. So, a player you know is very good is the one you want to put on the bench, then you are not ready to solve the problem of the country. If you solve the problem of the economy, insecurity will be reduced in a way. Once the economy is good you can unite the country because once people are productive and are doing well, they will not care about tribalism or religion. And I have said my job is to remove the country from consumption to production.
People have thrown darts at you because you’re seeking the presidency. But some people also wonder, what’s really the attraction for this office? Inflation is about 18.9%, there is terrorism, disunity, subsidy issue, ASUU, debt burden. So, what is it?
For me, there is no attraction but I want to serve. We want to build a coalition to save the nation and take back and save the country.
If we don’t, we will regret it. I’m a Nigerian. I no longer have the resident permits of other countries and I gave it up once I became a governor. I don’t have any other country I can call my country other than Nigeria so we are building a solid coalition of the willing to take Nigeria back and rebuild it into a workable, sustainable and prosperous country.
We are building a coalition of the willing made up of the youths whose future is being mortgaged. The youths are very resourceful, innovative and creative and we have vast land in the north, that land is our crude oil. The vast land of the North is a mineral resource that can generate trillions for this country and our strategy to activate it is in place.
There is a difference between excitement of the youths and being able to transform this movement into a voting movement. Some even say there are not enough important people and persons of significance coming out to identify with you and that all these are just social media stunts?
We’ve said it before, those people that have been neglected, the 100 million people below poverty line, the millions of youths whose creativity and resourcefulness are being stiffled by the system, they will be our structure and they are much more serious about this than people think. The pensioners who are being deprived are my structure. By February next year, those youths will come out in their millions to vote.
Yes, we might not be parading ‘notable names’. They are good and important but we are working with ‘notable ones’ too and those who you consider unknown. We have done it before but we will do it again. Like you said, someone said I should be president of a particular area. We don’t want people to vote for me because of religion or tribe but vote for me because you believe in my competence.
Look, people talk about same faith this or that. Everybody must be respected and everybody must be appreciated. Above all, assess our team based on what we represent and what we are bringing to the table.
On subsidy, how would you deal with it?
The issue of removal or none removal is about trust.
We will not spend more money on any subsidy, be it power, energy or petrol, than we will spend in education or security, health or pulling people out of poverty.
People think, because people are poor, you have to subsidise their power, housing, energy and everything, no. The same people you are talking about are struggling to go and live in UK, USA, Canada and other Western countries where the subsidy we are hooked on in Nigeria is not like that over there. What that tells you is that what we should be doing is to create prosperity so that our people can earn good money and pay for those things you are wasting money on to subsidise. What you pay on power or fuel or rent in Nigeria is far less than what people pay in the UK. So, the question is, why do people want to go to the UK? Or Canada? It is because they will find a job that would earn them good money and they will pay for it because these are organised societies where prosperity for all is the basic thing and not subsidy as we do it here. So, people do not want you to subsidise their lives but they want prosperity to enable them pay their bills. That is the system we are going to create so that there can be prosperity for all and not prosperity for just a few. People are going abroad where they pay more for power, energy and education. What we should be doing is to create prosperity so that our people can earn good money and pay for those things instead of the wasteful subsidy.
Realistically, in the first two years, how would you deal with some of these our thorny issues, like subsidy, ASUU…
We will deal with those issues. This is how we will deal with them: For example, we are destroying modular refineries, why? Yes, it is not going to be easy. But the most important thing is that you must build trust with the people. The reason why things do not work here is because people have lost trust so, you must build trust gradually and you can say, we will not pay this amount in subsidy, but we will use this cut to solve part of ASUU problem for instance, and people can see you do those things. In Egypt, for instance, they are paying subsidy on some things, but there is a level. Some others are doing the same but not the way we are doing it here where other things are suffering.
But talking about trust, Nigerians were caused to trust somebody in 2014/2015?
That is the reason why Nigerians have to hold all the candidates down to what they have said they will do. We should use our mouths to tell Nigerians what we want to do so that we will not turn round and claim that it is the party that said so and not me. You ask a president about a failed promise and he tells you it is not him, it is the party. Now, we need people to come and tell us what they want to do so we can capture it.
Trust is important because when you come in, you must know what you want to do and that is why we are saying we cannot be spending so much money on subsidy while education and security and health are suffering. The people will see with their eyes that when we remove this sum from this area, this is what we will use it for and this is what the impact will be. It is about engaging and building trust between you and the people.
If we invest in education, we will build the human capital that will drive development. If we invest in health, we will have a healthy populace. If we invest in security, there will be more investments in the country and many more investors will come.
The issue of terrorism goes beyond pontificating and some say you’ve not drawn out any concrete plan to tackle insurgency?
Security strategies are not meant to be revealed just like that but our plan will work. If our soldiers have been fighting other peoples wars and they have been succeeding and are commended for their efforts, why do you think they cannot succeed on their own turf? We will deal with it because our people have what it takes. Again, if you do not secure your country, investors won’t come so, it is something that we are going to deal with decisively. Even agriculture is on the decline and it is on account of this insurgency. We recognise the fact that we cannot continue like this.