As Nigerians from all walks of life gear up for the beginning of the “mother of all protests” on Monday, January 9, 2012, over increase in fuel price, journalist and author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria, Chido Onumah, interviewed Isaac Osuoka, director of Social Action and one of the leaders of civil society in Nigeria. Osuoka has been active in the country’s pro-democracy and Niger Delta peoples movements. He was one of the founders of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and acted as its first spokesperson in the late 1990s. Osuoka who is currently a Vanier Scholar at York University, Toronto, Canada, speaks on the situation in Nigeria and why Nigerians must look beyond President Jonathan.
CO: Whether we like it or not, you can’t deny the fact Goodluck Jonathan enjoyed a measure of support before the 2011 presidential election. What was responsible for this?
IO: Many Nigerians believed that Goodluck Jonathan was a different breed from the backward cabal that have held Nigeria hostage for the better part of the last 51 years. They thought that because he is a native of the Niger Delta with very minimal historical ties to what was referred to as the Hausa-Fulani oligarchy, that he represents a refreshing change from the past. They saw a meek looking and educated man and felt that maybe he is the change that Nigeria needs. Well, Goodluck Jonathan has proven to Nigeria that he is not the change the country needs. In fact, Jonathan is the worst President that the ruling class has ever foisted on Nigeria.
CO: Was it a case of misplaced optimism?
IO: Exactly! The man has shown that he is clueless. He has shown that he lacks the capacity to address the very serious challenges confronting the country. And what is even worse is that he does not care. He does not care for the people of Nigeria. He does not care for the progress of Nigeria. He has the mentality of a Local Government caretaker committee chairman. He has surrounded himself with similarly clueless characters who are only interested in how much they can loot while the booty lasts. This is a president that hates Nigerians whom he thinks forced him to be president and he seems determined to punish them.
CO: Let’s talk about the recent increase in fuel price which has precipitated massive demonstrations across Nigeria.
IO: The removal of fuel subsidy demonstrates again that the Jonathan presidency does not care a bit about the welfare of Nigerians. Can you imagine the puerile argument that fuel subsidy does not benefit the majority of the Nigerian people? Only those that see benefit in terms of how much you loot can make such a stupid argument. You see, since they know that the figures of how much the government is expending on subsidies is over bloated because of the corruption in the system, and they know the few individuals that have benefited from all the fraud, they have come to associate benefit with whose hands are in the lucre. That is all they see. The loot. That is all they are interested in. From their exalted position, they don’t see the mass of the Nigerian people who are mostly unemployed or have the lowest incomes anywhere in the world. That is why World Bank sponsored economists like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will ask during one of her meetings with the NLC why people were so worried over subsidy removal when about 70 per cent of Nigerians don’t own cars! That is why the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who behaves more like a politician will talk down to us and insist we must accept the fuel increase while he is comfortable spending almost N20 billion ($133million) of tax payers’ money on a piece of land to build a “world class international conference centre”. This has always been their modus operandi. Was it not David Mark, then a soldier-minister under General Ibrahim Babaginda (now senate president and a champion of democracy) who berated Nigerian students for protesting increase in fuel because not many students owned cars, as if many of us who went to universities outside our state of origin had to trek to school. Can a ruling elite be more insensitive!
CO: Many Nigerians are saying that rather than remove subsidy of petrol, the president should consider removing subsidy on government inefficacy.
IO: What can I say? We are all aware of the billions earmarked for feeding the president and the vice president in 2012. The vice president will spend N1.7 billion ($11.3 million) on trips in 2012 and N1.3 billion ($8.6 million) on office stationeries. This amount includes N12 million ($80,000) on books, N45 million ($300,000) on newspapers, and N9 million ($60,000) on magazines and periodicals. Does this show a government that is serious? Go back at the end of the year and see how many books were bought. We are in an emergency, but our rulers are busy frolicking. Our rulers don’t see that there is no effective mass transit system anywhere in the country and the people depend on petrol fuelled vans, motocycles, tricycles, and kabukabus to move from home to work. They don’t see that the public electricity system has all but collapsed and businesses and homes depend mostly on petrol generators to do business. They don’t see that the people of Nigeria are important. But why should they? They are used to rigging elections and subverting the will of the people. For someone like Goodluck Jonathan who has been the biggest beneficiary of the PDP rigging machine right from when he was summoned to go and become deputy governor in Bayelsa, the people don’t matter. Have you not seen how irritated he looks anytime he is on national television and he is asked about lack of positive result with his policies? The man does not understand why Nigerians should continue to complain. Over and over again he has given the story that Obama or some foreign head of state has praised him for what he is doing and he feels that is what Nigerians should also do. But Obama does not live in Benin City and has not experienced power failure in his life. So how should Obama be the one to decide whether Jonathan is performing or not.
CO: Are you saying Jonathan is a stooge of Western powers?
IO: It is worse than that. Jonathan is a stooge of backward Nigerian political elite who are generally stooges of Western powers. Though as a stooge of stooges, Jonathan has shown that he is particularly spineless and is most amenable to even the slightest of pressure from those he considers powerful. The man is so scared of those he considers powerful. Like the governors. Now let us look at how this backward ruling elite always attempts to selects its weakest elements to act as pawns in the name of president. As far back as the eve of Nigeria’s independence, the Sarduana, who was a powerful leader of the North, selected a weak Tafawa Balewa to be Prime Minister. So we then had a situation where the head of government of Nigeria, the largest state in black Africa, was a mere stooge of powerful northern politicians and contractors who expected the head of government to just represent their interests. We later had Gowon who was maybe the weakest among northern soldiers that took power at that time. Again, Gowon was a stooge for the main powers who remained behind the scenes to share their loot while Gowon was speaking English in public. The same thing with General Obasanjo who as military head of state was not the main power. The same with Shagari, Nigeria’s first really clueless head of government. Like Balewa the northern political establishment selected a weak Shagari who will not stop them from looting. Babangida, Abacha. Those had their different styles, but were really all continuations of a reprobate regime of waste.
CO: You agree then with Chinua Achebe that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”.
IO: I agree completely. Anytime someone strong and a bit independent minded emerges, they kill him. But sometimes the scheme of the dominant power blocs in the country backfires. For example, when they sponsored Obasanjo to return as civilian head of government in 1999 against the wish of even people in Obasanjo’s village. Obasanjo came and decided to play the game on his own terms. He had learnt how to play the game from the soldier-politicians. He made sure he handed over power to a weak politician. He carefully selected Yar’adua, a man he knew to be terminally ill. Someone who will be too sick to rule. Obasanjo also forced Jonathan - against Jonathan’s will, to become Vice President. Today Jonathan is Nigeria’s most unwilling president. Political jobbers around him, including those of them from the Niger Delta, asked him not to throw away the chance of the Niger Delta.
CO: If that is the case, is he representing the interest of the Niger Delta?
IO: President Jonathan is the worst thing to happen to the Niger Delta. Go and see the East-West road. The road from Warri to Port Harcourt and beyond. The condition of that federal road is worse than ever. This is an outrage! Every year there is a budget allocation for everything. At the end of the year nothing to show for all the billions. Why? This is because Jonathan is superintending over the biggest looting spree in this history of Nigeria. Governors see state funds as their private estate. Ministers see their office as reward for loyalty to governors and opportunity to chop. Local government chairmen. Those are the biggest rogues! The National Assembly is more or less a college of self-serving opportunists – most of whom cannot even get close to winning in free and fair elections. They say most of the big houses in Abuja have been built or bought by civil servants. Where did they get the money? These people, all these people that have continued to loot, are part of the political elite. They are happy that a clueless and spineless person like Jonathan is President. They are the people insisting that Jonathan remove fuel subsidy so that they will have more loot to share. Simple. But Jonathan can’t see it. He doesn’t have that kind of vision. He and those eating with him can’t see the groundswell of opposition to fuel increase. They can’t see that opposition to fuel increase will ultimately result in resistance to everything the ruling class represents in Nigeria. This is just the beginning. In that case, the increase in fuel price is good. For the first time in a long time Nigerians from different ethnic, religious and even class backgrounds are massing together to build a new movement for change. That is what excites me. Supporting the new movement should be the duty of every person who is keen to see Nigeria progress. Neither Jonathan nor his PDP can do anything good for Nigeria. What we need is not just a change of government, we need a system overhaul. This needs struggle and perseverance on the part of the people.
CO: What do you make of the economic policy direction of the Jonathan administration?
IO: He has none? We don’t see any direction. We have heard them talk about a transformation agenda, but what is that agenda? There is none! Corruption is on the increase. Have you asked yourself why the president has not made public his asset declaration? What is he hiding? The biggest challenge facing the Nigerian economy is electricity. The government has done nothing to show that it even appreciates the urgency. Statements, statements everyday, but nothing to show. What they want is to continue to drill and sell crude oil and share proceeds to the three tiers of government for onward looting. It is sad that the same thugs that have benefited from the looting of Nigeria are the same people that Jonathan has assembled to be part of his so called economic management team. These are people that Jonathan feels indebted to because they provided cash for his campaign. But is there no other way to reward political donors? Must you hand over the management of the national economy to them? The governors are well represented in that economic team. But what have they done in their states to demonstrate that they can manage any economy? The heads of private banks are also prominent. These people know how to make profit for themselves – mostly by conniving with politicians and civil servants to launder stolen money. Does that qualify them to manage Nigerian economy? Then you have Okonjo-Iweala - an agent of international finance capital.
CO: Talking about Okonjo-Iweala, civil society groups are asking President Jonathan to sack her. Do you share that view? She is serving at the instance of the president, shouldn’t the focus be on the president?
IO: I agree that the focus should be on President Jonathan, but Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala is dangerous. Her case is special. This is a person sent by the World Bank to continue economic policies that have failed everywhere in the world. Okonjo-Iweala wants to deregulate because deregulation is an essential ingredient of the neoliberal economic doctrine of the World Bank and IMF. She is too far away from the realities of Nigeria to understand that deregulating fuel price in Nigeria will have negative impacts on all aspects of productive life. But does she care? No. All her bosses in Washington DC expect is for Nigerian government to have as much cash as possible to service the debt profile that is sure to increase under Jonathan. Okonjo-Iweala’s greatest achievement in government has been the biggest single transfer of wealth from Nigeria to other parts of the world. The so called debt forgiveness meant that Nigeria gave money to Europe and North America - representing the biggest wealth transfer in human history. They said the savings from debt deal will be used to improve infrastructure. Where is the infrastructure? Okonjo-Iweala is now saying that the gain from oil subsidy will be used to improve infrastructure. Does this woman think that Nigerians are fools all the time? It is just sad the way these people protect their private interests and claim that they are trying to improve Nigerian economy. Recently, I read that the Federal Executive Council awarded contract in the billions for the importation of plastic trash cans from Europe. This is for use in Abuja. Can you imagine that? Is Jonathan and his cabinet saying that there are no plastic manufacturers in Nigeria who can do the job? There are plastic manufacturers all over the country. All the government needed to do was give specification to local producers and monitor and enforce compliance. Keeping the job at home would have meant creating or protecting jobs at home and all the benefits that come from local production. But this government does not care for any local production apart from the production of crude oil. That is why they can even think of increasing fuel price, the same action that could completely destroy the local artisanal sectors where the bulk of production in Nigeria takes place.
CO: The people in the Niger Delta must really be disappointed with President Jonathan.
IO: I can tell you that there was real excitement with the idea of a son of the Niger Delta becoming president of Nigeria. Our people had been treated like second-class citizens since Nigeria was created. So people were happy to see Jonathan as president and went out to vote – even though we know that state governors schemed to inflate the votes for their own purposes. But what has been the benefit of a Jonathan presidency? Symbolic. Only symbolic. Today, the traditional dress of the Niger Delta male, in particular, the Ijaw male, has become something of a national attire. People from the Delta now dress as such and can move in Abuja with a swagger. You did not have this before. Apart from the symbolism and cosmetic impact, there is nothing substantial for the people from the Jonathan presidency. Environmental pollution and destruction of livelihoods by the petroleum industry is worse now than ever before. Today, we have a major offshore oil spill by Shell and the Jonathan presidency is looking the other way. There is no serious attempt to call Shell to order. Compare that with the response of the Brazilian government to recent offshore spill by Chevron. But with Jonathan in Nigeria, there has not been any serious attempt to address the issue of lost livelihoods for the coastal communities as a result of the recent Shell spill. It is a shame because there are people in Jonathan’s system that had campaigned all their lives for environmental justice. Now that they have the rare opportunity to do something, they are looking the other way. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) produced a report on pollution in Ogoniland. The recommendations from UNEP should have provided the Jonathan presidency with an opening to address the historical environmental abuse of the Niger Delta. But all he did was set up a committee like he does on everything. Anytime Jonathan sets up a committee, you know the man is not serious. Or he just doesn’t care.
CO: It is a shame because President Jonathan is a major beneficiary of the struggle of the people in the Niger Delta.
IO: President Jonathan is a beneficiary of the struggles of the Niger Delta which he was never part of. Today, he is enjoying the goodwill of even ex-militants who have continued to support the amnesty programme because they feel their son is president. But Odi has not been rebuilt? Even Okerenkoko has not been rebuilt. I agree that the amnesty programme has been very successful in keeping militants off the creeks. The result has been restoration of oil production to optimal levels. The government people are the biggest beneficiaries. But the relative calm or peace as some people chose to call it has not been utilized by the government as an opportunity to improve social infrastructure in the Niger Delta or anywhere in Nigeria for that matter. Things are getting worse every day. A few months ago, people in a village next to Jonathan’s were protesting against Shell for abuses. People in the Niger Delta now recognize that Jonathan is a waste of time. Let me tell you that petrol is very expensive in the creeks of the Niger Delta.
Combined with the fact that the engines of boats consume a lot of petrol, it means that removal of subsidy will affect the Niger Delta the most.