In this interview, a former Minister of Cooperation and Integration in Africa, Dr Abimbola Ogunkelu, tells MUDIAGA AFFE on a need for members of the Economic Community of West African States to have a single currency, and also the imperative of establishing community policing in Nigeria due to rising insecurity, among others
The proposed single currency for the ECOWAS sub-region has dragged on for too long. Why do you think it is so and what is the significance of the single currency?
The ECOWAS single currency is an important economic programme for member states in the region. It is likened to the significance of the Euro to the European Union. It simply means that you can do business across the borders without losing money by changing from one currency to the other. It also enhances the unity in the region. Apart from political unity which is not absolute because every country has its government and political parties, if you have an economic bond then you are stronger. Part of the ECOWAS protocol is the free movement of persons, goods, and services. When you go from Nigeria to Togo through the Benin Republic you change currencies. If you continue to Ghana, the currency further changes and you continue changing currencies if you move to Guinea, Liberia and so on. So, people are always changing currency and in the process there are shortfalls and you may think it is not so much, but if you pull the aggregate together it goes into millions in that currency or even of dollars. Now the question is: who gets those millions of dollars? It is the middlemen and they do not translate into the direct improvement of the economy. So, the single currency is very good for the region.
January 2020 was fixed as a benchmark for the take-off of the single currency regime, but there appears to be some areas of policy conflicts. What should be done?
When I was the Minister of African Integration, I was also the minister responsible for ECOWAS. I must state that this single currency was Nigeria’s proposal that we should use ‘ECO’ which was got from the word ECOWAS. At some point, I was the chairman of the convergence council to bring about the monetary union. We must have a convergence of your economic policies of inflation and others so that when they now have a common currency, it becomes easy. These are all the policies that should have been in place as stipulated in the convergence policy. At that time, Ghana wanted the Cedi to be used as the common currency; Guinea wanted Guinea as our money, but Nigeria came up with the idea of ECO and in 2002 or so, we adopted the name ECO for the currency. Of course, we had to lobby by getting some other countries together and ECO was approved as the name for the currency. Since that time we had the West African Central Bank that should have been functioning but I do not think it is functioning. Part of the convergence principles would be that the inflation rate must not be double digits in any country and not meeting those convergences delayed the implementation. If they later agreed for January 2020, I see it as almost 20 years late because some countries are not moving. In the time that I was referring to, Nigeria was at the forefront of ECOWAS being developed as a strong building bloc for the African Union. It is the community blocs – ECOWAS, the one in South, East, Central and North Africa that should be the building bloc for the AU. But the AU has since been formed. Having the common currency in the ECOWAS region will be a start of greater things to come. From the colonial era, the Francophone countries have been using the CFA franc and with that, they already have a common currency and when we proposed ECO, they bought into it and they have now gone to use ECO. We hope that ECO will not just replace CFA franc because if they meet the convergences, then ECO is the currency we hope that Nigeria and other countries will move quickly.
Over the years, we (Nigeria) have been tagged as the Big Brother of Africa. But, are we truly still ‘big’?
We are a big brother because we are the largest in terms of population and the largest economy. But right now, when you are a big brother without money in your pocket, will your little siblings come after you for largess? I think it is a temporary thing for Nigeria because in the last couple of years the economy has gone down, except those who are deceiving the public. After all, all the indices of poverty are high while the indices of a wealthy nation are low. If the government takes the economy seriously and works in the right direction, Nigeria will come back to be the big brother of Africa again.
At the moment we are faced with insurgencies coming from bandits to Boko Haram and other groups. Now, considering the peacekeeping role we have always played in other nations, do you think we have got that commensurate payback role from other African countries?
The first question we should ask is whether Nigeria has called other African countries to come and help in peacekeeping? I am not aware if we have asked. If we ask, I think they will. Except for countries like Cameroon, Chad, and Niger that are protecting their areas, we do not have countries that are directly working in Nigeria for the peacekeeping mission. But Nigeria will tend to ask the United States of America, European Union to assist them when the African brothers are here who can assist. We played key roles in the Congo in 1960, also played a key role in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and even South Africa because they could not have got rid of apartheid without the key role that Nigeria played. But if Nigeria behaves that it is self-sufficient, they cannot just come with their soldiers to assist us. If Nigeria tells the other African countries that the crisis in Nigeria would require extra hands, I am sure they will come.
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) recently said that he was surprised that Boko Haram still exists. What do you read of that?
I think for a long time, the President and the All Progressives Congress-led government has been in denial about Boko Haram. They have not been truthful to Nigerians because they keep telling us that Boko Haram is decimated and we keep read that the same Boko Haram has struck in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and other states in the North-East. How can the President just wake up not to say that he is surprised? I am sure that he is also surprised that Fulani herdsmen are carrying AK47 riffles all over the country. There are bandits in all our forests who are just jumping on travellers on the highway to kidnap people. It shows that there is total insecurity in Nigeria and the President is not aware of it.
Just as the President was saying that, members of the National Assembly also raised concern over the rising wave of insecurity. Do you think it was by coincidence?
It is not by coincidence. The truth is that most members of the National Assembly cannot go to their villages without facing one form of challenge or the other. Even many of them in the South-West will hardly travel by road to Ondo, Ekiti or Osun because they are not too sure. So, if the President is now saying that he is not aware that there is so much violence, then I think he has been living in a cocoon, he is not living with the people, he is living far away from the people. When I was minister of African Integration, we were aware that West Africa and Nigeria, in particular, was awash with light weapons and guns and there was an ECOWAS protocol that we must ensure that non-security people do not have access to them. Some efforts were made and quite a few weapons were recovered and the Customs and others had to take all of them to the Ministry of Defence for them to be destroyed. We took them there but did not know what they did with them. There are too many guns in circulation and it is only in recent times that Fulani herdsmen also started moving with AK47 rifles. The herders used to take care of their cattle with the stick and sometimes dagger for domestic use, but now they carry AK47 and the question is who gave them that power and how did they get into our borders. What has happened with the Nigeria Immigration Services and Customs that are supposed to guard our borders? It is a major issue and the violence in this country is unbelievable.
Do you think the recent visa-on-arrival policy that is being implemented is a welcome development at this time?
The government itself has alleged that the borders in the northern part of the country are porous. If you go to Katsina, there is hardly any restriction between Nigeria and Niger in terms of movement. These people just walk across. A Fulani cleric recently said they do not need a visa to enter Nigeria and that is the truth. He said this because he knew the borders are porous but the fact that they just enter Nigeria does not make them Nigerians; the fact that they are Fulanis does not make them Nigerians. If the government is saying that you can come to Nigeria without a visa, it could be a policy but I do not think it was well thought out. The President just went to Egypt and announced it and I think if it is a Nigerian policy it should have been announced here and not in a foreign land. I think what probably would happen is that if you get in through the controlled borders like the airports or seaports of land borders where there are Customs and Immigration, you will be required to bring in your passport and then they can give you visa-on-arrival but is it being reciprocated by other African countries? That should be a policy that should be tabled at the AU to be accepted by all. In the ECOWAS countries, it was when I was a minister that we did the ECOWAS passport. Now in any Nigerian, Benin Republic, Ghanaian passport you will see the ECOWAS logo on it and it simply means that a Nigerian going to any of the ECOWAS countries do not need a visa- that is part of the integration we are talking about.
Worried by the deplorable state of insecurity in the country, the South West governors recently constituted Operation Amotekun, but they were confronted by the initial opposition by the Federal Government, what is your reaction to this?
It was after the plans to establish Amotekun was hashed that the President is saying that he did not know of the level of insecurity in the country. If he knew it before the Amotekun plan was unveiled, he, probably, would have realised that it was a way for governors to protect their people. In our constitution, it is said that the governor is the Chief Security Officer of the state but he is a CSO that has no police or army. So, if he wants anything he will have to ask the Commissioner of Police who in turn will get directive from the Inspector-General of Police. All of these are the anomalies that came into play when the army took over. At the time we got independence there were local government police, and in 1963 we changed from parliamentary to presidential system and now became the Federal Republic of Nigeria but today we are more like a Unitary Republic of Nigeria because a lot of things that are on the Concurrent List are things that should belong to states. Look at agriculture, the Federal Government has no land. By the Land Use Decree of 1978, all lands are vested in the governors. So, where is the business of the Federal Government having the Ministry of Agriculture? Again, the Ministry of Water Resources ought not to be in the federal structure because the waters are with the states. The military, because of their unitary system with a single command, structured the country along that line whereas democracy is not like that. It simply means that restructuring is very necessary.
Tagging the Operation Amotekun as illegal was greeted with a lot of responses from across the country, what is your reaction to that action?
It was the Attorney-General of the Federation (Abubakar Malami) that declared it illegal and we know that the decision was not reached at the Federal Executive Council meeting. The Attorney-General on his own went off the handle and declared it illegal whereas it is not. If you say that it needs legal backing by the promulgation of laws in the various state houses of assembly, it is a different matter. I want to believe that he did not seek the view of Mr President before he came out with that pronouncement, I think he acted unilaterally and ultra vires. To declare a thing like that as illegal you first take it to the FEC and it is after then you make such pronouncement after a robust discussion must have been held. So, I think our Attorney-General is over-bloated in his view.
At this point of insecurity, is the issue of community policing apt?
It is not only community policing by state police. Look at the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Canada, there is state police, county police, and city police. Go to Italy, there is the Vigilia ulvano, which is the police for the city. These things are not new; they only keep criminals in check. If in my community in Epe, the Divisional Police Office is from Sokoto State, who does he know in the community and how does he reach the community people and how will the people access him? He will just be like a foreigner who is there. Whereas if the DPO is a citizen of the area, he will know nearly everybody, so, if there are miscreants he will know and there are people who will tell them. I understand that the National Assembly is already saying that community policing is long overdue but I think community, state, and city police is long overdue. In Lagos, we have over 22 million people, we are seriously under policed.
Do you think our leaders have the political will to tackle insecurity?
So far, in the last five years, the government has not shown any political will. They have just relied mostly on propaganda. If you say you have conquered Boko Haram and they keep killing people, don’t they have a sense of shame that they should stop deceiving the people and accept that Boko Haram is still a serious problem? On the day of the election in some parts of Borno, Boko Haram threw bombs. The Federal Government should stop deceiving the people. You can tell lies and keep telling it a bit one day the lies will bottom out.
Different countries are already mapping plans on how to tackle the recent coronavirus. Do we have the facility to curtail it if it enters Nigeria?
It is the political will that determines what the government does or not. When Ebola came into the country, we did not have the facilities on the ground to tackle it, yet there was the political will. The government of Lagos State under the administration of Mr Babatunde Fashola took the bulls by the horn. We were able to curtail Ebola which started in Lagos and during the process we lost some precious people like Dr Stella Adadevoh and we stopped Ebola to the extent that the United States asked Nigeria how we did it. If coronavirus comes to Nigeria we can curtail it because we have structures on the ground. We have public health, quarantine, and others but it must be done swiftly, timeously and in the proper way. From what we have read China is making a lot of moves and it is having quarantine units in cities and areas. Anybody coming from China should be quarantined because the incubation time for the virus is about 14 days. So, it is important for the government to make these various sectors functional.
Where should the pendulum swing towards in the 2023 presidential election?
My position is that no part of the country should have the monopoly of leadership. Leadership should be given to whom it is due. If they say it must be retained in the North, they are holding it now and the economy is in a bad state. Should it continue because it is north? But if there is a northerner that is known and can revamp the economy and revive it, I cannot say no. It cannot, however, be in the North just because they are north. Unfortunately, some northerners behave as if they own Nigeria, it is not so, they do not own Nigeria.