Ekiti State Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi was a key player in the intrigues that have dogged the politics of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), which culminated in the disputed election of May 24. In this interview with the Head, Southwest Bureau of The Guardian, MUYIWA ADEYEMI, Fayemi expressed optimism that the Forum will bounce back under the leadership of Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi.
The Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) is a body not known to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, yet it is a powerful bloc nobody can ignore its relevance; how do you explain this?
WELL, it is trite to say the Nigeria Governors’ Forum is not known to the constitution. But let me just say that the Forum is registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) under the Companies and Allied Matters Act. So, even if it is not in the constitution, there can be no question that it has contributed to the deepening of this democracy.
What is power, anyway? Power is the ability to wield influence in order to achieve one’s objectives. So, even if it is true that the NGF is not a statutory body of the Nigerian Constitution, you must not forget that the office of the governor is a constitutional office and governors by virtue of their office are automatically members of the National Economic Council (NEC) and members of National Council of States (NCS). These are the highest policy making advisory bodies to the Nigerian President in the Nigerian constitution. As you may be aware, NGF regularly meets before the meetings of those constitutional bodies to aggregate their position. This is where many people misconstrue the role of the NGF Chairman. The chairman of NGF, Governor Rotimi Amaechi never spoke as Amaechi, he was the voice of his colleagues, who have reached a consensus on a number of issues; excess crude, Sovereign Wealth Fund, state police, constitutional reforms, polio eradication campaign, peer review mechanism, these are issues Amaechi, or whoever is in that position will speak on, on behalf of his colleagues. It is not his own opinion, not necessarily his own beliefs; it is the position that has been taken by his colleagues. Finally, Nigeria is a federation of federating units; governors are the most important figures within their own federating units. And these federating units are coordinates, they are not subordinates, they are equal.
Until recently many Nigerians do not take cognizance of the activities of the NGF, but in the last one year, people begin to see it as a powerful body, especially in challenging the Presidency
I do not necessarily agree with you, but NGF is a young institution and it came into being in 1999. You will recall that it was in the second republic that we actually had governors, not colonial governors, but elected governors. Until then, we had regional blocs or ideologically functional blocs. You either talk of Southern Governors, Northern Governors or Progressive Governors and populated by parties like UPN, NPN, NPP, PRP and GNPP, but we didn’t have a formal national Governors’ Forum as we now have it.
The current NGF is modeled after America’s National Governors Association. It is in the nature of things for such bodies to grow in reputation, credibility and popularity, based on the results achieved on matters of interest to its members. So, even if you are right that many were not aware of our activities in the early days, the ability to put up a united front on issues like health, education, infrastructure, federation accounts etc, has endeared NGF to a wider section of the populace.
What gave NGF a more popular breakthrough in the public psyche in recent times was the patriotic role it played in the assumption of office of the current President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan. You will recall that in the heat of the crisis, when the late President Yar’Adua was ill and a cabal within the Villa deployed all manner of subterfuge to prevent President Jonathan from coming into office, NGF stood up to be counted on the popular side of that struggle, by leading the struggle against this cabal in collaboration with the National Assembly to enable us to have the Doctrine of Necessity. This was the work of NGF under the leadership of its former chairman, Bukola Saraki, now a Senator. And everybody gave kudos to Governors Forum for playing that critical role. That was a historic moment in the life of our country and this has been the nature of NGF.
It is a forum for constructive intervention in the polity, a forum for peer learning, it is a forum for constructive pressure on the leadership at the national level, because governors also have interests and some of these interests include what we have described consistently as the manipulation of the Federation Account by the Federal government, through illegal deductions from the account, and this is one of the contentious issues with the President and the Federal Government.
We have consistently insisted that you cannot shave our heads behind our back, for you to take money belonging to any of the constituent units that make the federation, we must be part of that decision, rather than learn belatedly that the money had been removed arbitrarily, which has often been the case. And that has led us to a campaign in the constitution reform process for the separation of office of Accountant General of the Federation and the Accountant General of the Federal Government.
These are fundamental issues that have created misunderstanding that led to the somewhat negative reaction to Governor Amaechi in the Presidential circle and in the Federal Government circle. But these are issues that we have all collectively agreed on. All the issues we have in the Supreme Court, all the 36 governors contributed to hire lawyers, including those on the other side now. These are the contentious issues between us and the Federal Government. It is not personal, it is political. The reality is that we all refer to the President as our President, we respect his office, but we also feel strongly that we all have constitutional responsibilities to our people who elected us and to Nigeria collectively, and we must not do anything to shirk those responsibilities that have been placed on our laps.
So, if anyone is saying that Amaechi is doing this, wanting to become a President, it is not to our knowledge that he has ambition to contest for Presidency, if indeed he has any. My reason for voting for him is that he has shown strength of character in an environment in which courage is in short supply, he has shown independent leadership, and he has shown responsibility in protecting the integrity of the Forum and the yearning of the governors.
He has never deviated from any decision taken by the governors by consensus, even if those decisions might put him into trouble at the Presidency. It is important, however, to stress that our votes were not anti Presidency votes, neither were they pro-Amaechi votes. They were simply aimed at guarding the independence and integrity of the Forum jealously, as a body of elected governors, not a partisan body along party lines, even though we are politicians, it is a body based on our interests collectively and individually.
Peer learning is one of the major functions of the NGF but the body in recent times, seems to be playing politics more than its real function?
What do you mean by playing ‘politics more than its real function’? Isn’t politics the judicious allocation of resources? I don’t agree with you, whoever said we play more of politics there is not familiar with what we do at the Forum, after all you said the activities of the Forum was not that known to many Nigerians until now. When you go to NGF you will see a body of records, information covering all spheres. We discuss education in our states, we discuss health care collectively, we have a joint campaign on Polio; we just had a Governance Fair in the Southwest that brought together all the six states of the Southwest. It was held in Lagos last week. What did we do there? We looked at what Lagos is dong best that Ogun, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo, Osun can learn. What does Ekiti do better than other states? Ekiti’s Social Security Scheme was adopted for all states in the Southwest, Ondo’s ‘3is’ development initiative was recommended, Osun’s ‘OYES’ was recommended. If you are not within the Forum, you may not know anything like that is happening.
This Governance Fair has been held in three zones before it got to Southwest. Two states have just completed Peer Review Mechanism Process of the Governors Forum; Anambra and Ekiti, others like Lagos, Niger and Rivers are being assessed now, this is the scheme we all volunteered to participate in, a peer learning scheme.
The reason why the leadership of NGF became an issue is simply that with growth in every organisation comes competition. Democracy evolves and it always evolves from consensus to election, because competition increases with evolution. While it was easy for governors to agree to a consensus in 1999, it is not necessarily the case now. And it is not always that consensus deepens democracy, it could also lead to the tyranny of the majority.
Why do we have proliferation of governors forum, East, West, North, South-south, are these not unnecessary distractions?
Not at all. In every democratisation process, the democratic struggle is waged on many fronts, the NGF is the national body of governors, the Progressive Governors’ Forum is put together by governors who share the same political ideological orientation, that is why it is called the Progressive Governors’ Forum. The Southwest, the Southeast, the North, the BRACED states are zonal forums, where members discuss matters of zonal interests and everything come together at the national forum. It should not surprise you that if you look at the voting pattern in the last NGF election, you probably will also detect zonal dynamics. And that must have been informed by like- mindedness.
How would you react to the insinuation that the opposition governors are behind this crisis with the hope of benefiting from it in 2015?
What has 2015 got to do with the election of the chairman of the NGF; nothing? I am not clairvoyant, but I went to school, I can make a distinction between two things, 2015 will take care of itself as far as I am concerned. We are not opposition governors but governors from different parties, not PDP, which is the dominant party in the Forum. NGF is for all governors, regardless of their party affiliation. It is not a forum for PDP Governors, to that extent we also have interests and our interest in this case is not to become puppets to the PDP administration. If that is what is meant when they say we are behind Governor Rotimi Amaechi, they are not correct. Factually speaking, Governor Jang also has some of the non-PDP members in his support too. Governor Obi of APGA and Governor Mimiko of Labour Party voted for him and were some of his most vocal promoters. It is therefore not correct to say opposition or governors from the other parties are the ones causing crisis in NGF. Governors voted according to their own interests, according to their own reading of who will be pursue the interest of their own party and their own state and that is perfectly legitimate in my view.
For example, if you are a governor from the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), it is no secret that we are very passionate about fiscal federalism and about reducing the powers at the centre through devolution and making states and local governments more accountable. I am sure you know that Amaechi is also very strong on those issues. It is therefore not difficult to come to the conclusion that the best way to go is to vote in a chairman who will not tie us to the apron strings of the Federal Government.
With the current polarisation of NGF, do you see the forum operating as a united body in the nearest future?
Absolutely yes. We are all adults, capable of resolving our differences. And to the best of my knowledge the first statement that Governor Amaechi made after winning the NGF election was a very reconciliatory remark, he appealed to all to sheathe their swords and forget all that had happened. He appealed to all of us to continue to work with the President in order to take Nigeria forward and deepen our democracy. I think we all agree with him because it is not a battle between the President and the Governors’ Forum.
We are in the project of developing Nigeria with the President leading us. And anything we can do to ensure that project does not suffer; I believe we will all do it. I know there is a lot of discussion going on, on both sides on how to bring the matter to an amicable resolution, devoid of recrimination, devoid of finger-pointing, devoid of external interference.
As a scholar and pro-democracy activist, are you not ashamed about the actions and utterances of some governors; some lied that there was no election, only for the video recording of the event to proof them wrong?
In the heat of the moment, we all make statements that upon reflection do not endear us to the public. That happens sometimes when tension is high. But I think these are the things we have to put behind us. But I think the media is also being unfair to some of us. It is clear to all now from the video we released that there was an election and it was free, fair, credible and transparent, but some were insistent on aborting the pregnancy simply because the baby delivered was not acceptable to them. This is very reminiscent of the annulment of the June 12 election. People should apportion the blame fairly. We stood for the integrity of the process and we would have accepted if Amaechi had lost because to us, it was not about Amaechi but about the independence and integrity of the NGF.
Do you think people can still trust these governors after creating such confusion?
Well, I have no comment on that.
What is the way out of this logjam?
The way out is for all of us to try and regain the trust and confidence of Nigerians, because I believe you are right that we have disappointed Nigerians with this and I apologise on behalf of all of us for that.
If election concerning just 35 voters could be so controversial, what happens when millions of Nigerians would vote in 2015?
This election was not just about 35 or 36 people, but these are people leading over 155 million people. It is about the integrity of the process.
But just 35 ballot papers and what could have happened if it was not recorded?
Let’s look at it from the bright side, that this taught us to be very vigilant and eternal vigilance is the price to pay for this democracy. At all times we must have our head properly screwed on and be alert to protect our democracy. The video itself is an evidence of that, and there are clear lessons to be learnt on this, we must always stand on the side of truth.
If Governor Amaechi calls a meeting now, do you think the 19 governors that voted for him will attend the meeting?
I don’t have any doubt in my mind that all of them will attend the meeting, but he will not call a meeting now, we have advised him not to call meeting until everybody is back on the same page. We need to appeal to all to sheathe their swords, let’s try and bring all our people back. And I understand that similar moves are being made from the other side. Thank God the Presidency has come out to say the President is not intervening in the NGF affairs and I want to commend the President for this.
This interview was first published in The Guardian