Former Governor of Anambra State and 2019 Vice Presidential Candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Peter Obi, in this interview first published by The Niche, dissects the state of the nation, pin-pointing the challenges and drawbacks and proffering the way forward.
Is there cause for celebration as Nigeria clocks 61 years as an independent nation?
For me, it is more of a reflection. There is nothing to celebrate. Yes, we are 61 but we are worse off today than we were in the 1960s. Then, Nigeria was a safer country, in terms of security. We had a relatively peaceful country. The different ethnic groups were working together as a family. The economy was better. But everything has now gone bad.
So, as I said, there is nothing to celebrate. It only calls for reflection. How do we build the future? That’s what we should be reflecting on.
What went wrong?
It’s leadership. Leaders over the years were not visionary and not willing to sacrifice. You have leaders concerned more about personal greed and who are not building a better future for all. So, everything is about leadership – very poor leadership.
Some say the fact that 61 years after, we still have one country is enough reason to celebrate…
That one is alive after 61 years as a human being and you have not made any progress in your life is not a reason to celebrate. The person is mere existing, you don’t celebrate that. You celebrate when you have made progress. Yes, you have a reason to thank God but not to celebrate. You can thank God that you are existing not celebrating.
How do we begin to get it right?
First is that we need to look back at our leadership selection process. It is a critical thing. We need to start proper leadership selection process that will throw up people who are competent, have the capacity and above all, the integrity and ability to sacrifice in building a better future for the country.
Do you see that happening?
Not really! I have not seen that. That’s why I am saying that we should, as a matter of urgency, start doing that. It is important that we do so.
Some people are of the view that the founding fathers actually had a vision. So, what went wrong? Is it a question of faulty vision by the founding fathers or succeeding leaders refusing to consolidate on the vision?
I would say it is both. The founding fathers had a vision, no doubt. They had an idea but subsequent ones did not just refuse to consolidate on the vision and amend what was wrong but actually distorted it.
What makes a system is that no matter the mistakes of the past, you continue to amend and readjust. But that is not the case in Nigeria. Our founding fathers were actually more visionary, more willing to sacrifice, more willing to do everything that would make it work than we are doing today.
What is your worst fear for Nigeria today?
My worst fear is what we seem to be seeing today; a major security and economic collapse. And we are close to that. We are just on the edge of going the other side.
With the way our leaders are carrying on, it seems they are not seeing what you are seeing?
I don’t know what they are seeing. You know, we are in a country where we are consumed by sharing and consumption. So, people are just seeing the consumption, the sharing part of it, without knowing that there is nothing left again to be shared. There is nothing again to waste. We just need to start reversing this destination to doom.
There is a strong agitation for power shift to the South after eight years of the Muhammadu Buhari Presidency. Southern governors are at the forefront of this demand. But there is equally a strong pushback from their Northern colleagues. What do you make of all that?
There are even issues that are more fundamental than all those things. We need to make the country productive. At present, the country is not productive. We need to restructure it and make it work.
Yes, each zone should have a chance of producing the president. Everyone should have that feeling of belonging. But there are other things that we should prioritise. For example, I have not seen the leaders taking decisions on the several schools that are closed in the North. I do not see them being aggressive about how to make the country productive. Where the president comes from cannot change anything unless we have a leadership that is competent.
It is not as if you will pick a president from one zone and automatically everything goes right. So, let’s discuss the issue of insecurity, and economy so that people can get jobs. We in the South- East want the presidency.
We want to produce the next president. But is it going to be automatic that once you give it to us, there will be food on people’s table? No! So, while this is being addressed, let’s talk about the country, the survival of the country; fixing that engine, not talking of hiring a driver yet because the engine has problem.
How prepared are you and your colleagues from the South-East for the presidency?
As I said, I don’t want to talk about preparation. I want to talk about the nation. Unless a vehicle is fixed, no matter how prepared you are, you are not going to drive a car that has an engine problem because it will not move. As we are fixing the car, we then hire a good driver so that we don’t go back to the problem we had. I don’t know about my colleagues. I don’t know how prepared they are but for me, let’s fix that engine first.
Which one should come first, fixing the engine or hiring somebody that can drive the car? What happens if you succeed in fixing the engine and find out that there is actually no driver?
Both can be addressed simultaneously. But anybody can say let’s have a good leader who can then start organizing how the car can be fixed. Yes, there is need for that leadership. But it has to be somebody with clear vision, more visionary on how to deal with the situation. And they abound in every region. Every region has competent leaders. And there are regions who have not had power before. So, it’s not just having the leader from any region.
The South-East has lost its tranquil atmosphere. What do you think is wrong?
It’s a combination of factors. It’s not just one issue but a combination of a lot of things. We the leaders should come together and start talking, start consulting all the sectors concerned. I was the chairman of the South East Governors Forum for several years. So, I know that there are not enough meetings, between the political leadership.
The division at the federal level has even crept into the South-East. There are not enough meetings. Everything, including war, can be solved through meetings. Those who disagree or say no, can be consulted and made to see reasons.
Secondly, with the economic down turn, every zone has a challenge. There are millions of youths who don’t know where the next meal will come from. There is crisis all over the place. But it can be managed with good leadership and leaders showing example by doing the right thing.
What do you think of the IPOB agitation for an independent Biafra?
For me, it’s neither here nor there. I am not against any form of agitation whether in the North, East or West. Let’s meet and consult them and tell them to go about it in an organised and civilised manner. All we need to do is to build a more united, economically viable Nigeria where people will be happy. If we do that, there will be no more need for agitations.
Do you share in the fears raised by the former Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, on the possible collapse of the Nigerian economy?
How could you say he raised the fears? He did not raise the fears. It’s just a very clear sign; the economy is in a mess. We are back in a debt trap. The country is not productive. The components that make the economy work are not there. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is not growing, the per capita is not growing, more and more people are being thrown into poverty, every day. You have insecurity. Nobody is going to farm. Inflation is on the rise, prices of goods are rising. Nigerians, who are lucky to have work, now spend over 100 per cent of their salary on feeding. So, you have a crisis. It’s not fear, it’s real. You could see it in the street, you could see it everywhere.
You don’t seem to agree with the argument by the government that the Debt-to-GDP ratio at 35 per cent is decent and therefore, our debt overhang is nothing to worry about?
No, it is debt-to-revenue, not debt-to-GDP. When your revenue is low, you have a problem. It is a revenue problem and I will give you an example. In the first five months of this year, our projected revenue was about N3 trillion. Our projected expenditure was about N5 trillion. Our borrowing to support this was to be about N2 trillion.
Now, from January to May, our total revenue was about N1.845 trillion. Our expenditure within that period was N4.812 trillion. Our borrowing to support that was about N3 trillion. Our total servicing of the debts was N1.802 trillion. So, in effect, if you minus revenue and the ones we used to service debt, we have only about N40 billion in actual net revenue receipt. Notwithstanding that we were supposed to, within the same period, put in what you call the sinking fund, the savings where you have to put money for payment, we did not do anything.
We didn’t put anything aside in the sinking fund. Within that period, we were supposed to put N100 billion in our sinking fund. Not a penny was put there. If you had put in that N100 billion, then, there won’t be anything left. So, you have a crisis. However, if the money we borrowed had been invested, the situation would have been different. But the money we borrowed had been consumed. When we talk of borrowing, it’s like assets and liabilities.
But the government insists that we are borrowing for infrastructure
Where is the infrastructure? It’s a simple thing. That’s why I said, if you are borrowing for that reason, you will see the asset side rising, you would see the GDP rising, you would see your per capita rising. I have spoken of so many other countries that borrowed as we did and what they did with it. I have spoken of Rwanda and even Ghana. In the year 2000, Ghana’s per capita was $255. Go and check what Nigeria was, then. Today, Ghana’s per capita is about $2,225.
You can go and on. It’s a very simple thing.
Why are we unable to generate enough revenue to take care of our expenditure?
It’s because we are not producing; we are not productive. The economy is not productive. It is a rent economy. Everybody is just living on rent. There is no production. Those who produce less are paid more and those who produce more are paid less. We need to make it (the economy) productive. So, we need to invest the money that we borrowed. If you borrow money and throw it away, that’s the end of it.
Would you say Nigerian leaders, especially the people we have there now, are simply incompetent or unpatriotic?
They are not unpatriotic. It’s not an issue of the people we have there now, but people that have been there over the years. What you are seeing is cumulative effect of leadership over the years. And leadership is not one person. When you talk of political leadership, people think it is the president, governor or local government chairman.
That’s not it. It is the body, the collection of all of us. So, when you aggregate all of us, you find out that the greater number which is above 60 per cent of the class, are incompetent and don’t have the capacity. They shouldn’t be there at all. In that case, we can generalize. So, you can say that all of us are incompetent.
That should be those of you in leadership class?
What is the way out, then?
The people have to be able to insist that those coming forward must be competent, must have the capacity. That process must go on. If it doesn’t, we are finished.
In the development crisis Nigeria finds itself, who do you blame most; the leaders or the followers?
I will blame the leaders, first. Societies are changed by leaders and subsequently by the followers, especially when they insist. If the leaders are visionary, they can drive the process. But Nigeria is in a double crisis; the leaders are problematic, the followers are problematic. So, it’s a double crisis. The followers are not insisting on the leaders doing it right. In other places, they would have insisted on leaders who would do it well.
Your state, Anambra, is having a governorship election on November 6. What steps are you taking, as a leader to educate the people to make good choice in electing their governor?
I have been advising them to take a look at the record of all the people who are contesting and ensure that the right person emerges. I am also calling on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure free and fair election for the future of the state.
So, I tell them. You know, there is so much noise in the air – I will do this, I will do that – but I tell them, let us look at people’s records. Let’s look at everything. The people are throwing money all over the place. It’s not about money, it’s about the future of the state. A leader must be somebody who is competent, has the capacity, somebody who has humility so that he can listen because you don’t know everything. If you know everything, for me, you know nothing. A leader must be somebody that is easily accessible; people can approach him. It’s not about money, it’s not about anything. But we are all guilty of some of the problems. What people are looking for is who would give them money, do this, do that. But in the end, they will be crying of bad leadership.
Your suggestion last time that those aspiring for governorship should not be more than 40-50 years didn’t seem to go down well with some people…
They put it in a wrong context. I didn’t say if one is of a certain age, he cannot do well. Every circumstance has its own reasons. I only listed what I did and said I was able to do those things because I had the capacity, the knowledge and everything required. There are some of these people seeking office that do not have much to show, given their past. So, let’s try somebody who is young, competent and everything. It’s not as if I said, if you are of a certain age, you should not contest.
Your critics say that since you left Anambra, all the candidates you have supported for governorship failed elections
It’s because they don’t know what politics is all about. That’s why they see politics as winning and losing. No! Life is not about those who rejected you. It is about what you do with life. Politics, for me, is not about winning or losing election. Go and check my politics. Since I entered politics in 2002 till date, almost 20 years, I have been consistent.
Go and check my history. There has never been a time it can be said that Peter Obi only appears during an election. I am not for that type of politics. Politics for me is about impacting on people through so many other ways. For some, politics is about winning or losing an election because they are consumed by the same sharing mentality. It is not a transaction for me, it’s not a business for me, it’s about impacting on the society. So, winning or losing in an election has never changed me.
How are you translating this philosophy of politics as service to the national level?
I have already said that I am at the national level. That’s where my politics is now. I am not going to hold the gun to people’s heads. I will only continue with my evangelization of preaching to people that we are on the wrong direction and need to change for the future of our children. If we get to anarchy, anarchy consumes everybody. Anarchy does not discriminate.
What is your agenda for Nigeria?
My main agenda is to ensure peace in Nigeria. We need the unity of this country. We need a country with law and order. Most importantly, we need a country that will start being productive, start creating jobs, start employing and giving hope to its citizens. Presently, what we have is a case of hopelessness.
Are you interested in running for the presidency in 2023?
I don’t know what my party, the PDP, would say. Whatever they do or say, I will abide by that. I am a loyal party man. If they zone the presidency to the South- East or any other area, I will respect the decision. For me, there are competent people in every zone. And every zone is important. I want us to have a country where every zone is brought to the table.
Some think that PDP, your party, is tilted to zoning the presidency to the North. Do you think that is the right thing to do?
For me, it hasn’t happened. I don’t know who is making such assertion. But as I keep saying, whatever is eventually done must be for the best interest of the country and the people. And let’s go where we have the opportunity of getting the best and to those zones that have not had the opportunity.
The Peter Obi that many Nigerians know is associated with transparency. But recently, there have been allegations of your owning businesses outside the shores of the country even when you were governor. How true are the allegations?
Well, I have not seen the allegations. But what I want people to concentrate on is this: if you see anything that you think is suspicious that belongs to Peter Obi, investigate it properly, most especially, get to the source of the wealth. So, if you see an account belonging to Peter Obi, please investigate the source of the wealth. That’s most important.
For me, it is not a question of throwing tantrums and saying he did this; he did that. Yes, Peter Obi before coming back to be a governor, had a very thriving business in the United Kingdom (UK). I had a very thriving business! A private company was there, supported by borrowings and everything from the Western world. And the business was doing well. When I became governor, I should not throw those things away or throw my businesses here in Nigeria, away.
I never said I was a pauper. And people knew. I was not a pauper before I became governor. Before I became governor, I was a director in several financial institutions and some other quoted companies by virtue of my investments. I had thriving businesses. And the businesses were not folded up because I wanted to be governor. They were there. They were all going concerns. All people need to know is that if there is anything you have seen, investigate it properly, ask valid questions and you will be provided with the right answers.
Most importantly, let us stop sensationalism and scandalizing someone but check source of wealth.
Then, go to where the person served and see if there was any missing link. For example, if I have an account, say, in UK (just assuming), when I was in government, can you check whether there was any payment, credit into it within that period? If I have accounts in Nigeria, can you check credits that went into it? If I had business with a group of people, can you ask them the growth of the business within that time? And if you want, you can come and ask me the source of the wealth.
I can explain every wealth that I have and everybody knows that I am not an extravagant fellow. I am not somebody who earns money and throws it away. I am a business man. Even as we speak, I am creating wealth and the wealth is multiplying. But what you notice is that some people are looking for what to say about Peter Obi.
What was it like governing Anambra State?
When we were serving Nigeria, they said we did not celebrate. Let me tell you the situation. When we got to Anambra State, though my predecessor (Chris Ngige) keeps saying that he left some money for me (I did not see any document to that effect), but I must acknowledge that he was not owing anyone. That I give to him. He was not owing. I did not inherit any debt from him in terms of borrowings from the banks.
But at the same time, I did not inherit any money from him. If he insists that he left some money in the state coffers, I would want to see the documents. But whatever it is, he did some remarkable work and he was not owing.
Then, I took it from there and handed over, not owing salaries and gratuities of civil servants – those that were entitled to be paid, both at the state and local government levels. I was not owing any contractor for contract executed and documented. I was not owing any supplier. I kept about three months’ salaries. I kept aside money for the schools that year, money to even start some projects. But I left in savings, N75 billion, $156 million, and the rest in naira. And they were in banks in Nigeria with documents to show that. That’s how you can say ‘I left something’. I still have the documents.
These are things to be celebrated. So, eight years after leaving office, they have not found anything. They are now saying ‘oh, he owns a house in London’. I wasn’t living in streets in London. I owned my house in London. I had a business that was being run effectively and had overdraft of several million dollars. Being a black man and being a Nigerian in London, was double challenge. Being a Nigerian made you a suspect and being a black man compounded the situation. Yet, I had a business of several millions of dollars. And the evidence is there!
Are you worried by the allegations?
No! Why should I be worried? You have heard people saying I don’t win elections. Allegations were raised against our Lord Jesus Christ. So, who am I, ordinary mortal like me? Today, we live for Him (Christ). If He (Christ) could be accused, who is Peter Obi? So, the allegations will come. But I challenge those accusing me to please show me those who left the record I did so that we can compare.
It is amazing that you were governor for eight years, did not owe anything or anybody, you did not borrow any money but rather left huge sums. We have governors today who are not even paying salaries, not doing anything, yet borrowing money around. How did you achieve the feat?
It’s a very simple thing; you reorder your priorities. Cut down the cost of governance, do the work. I live the life of a teacher. Teachers were known in the olden days for being careful. That’s how I lived as a governor. We shut down the cost of governance. We were public servants and we needed to live by that.
Did that have any backlash?
Yes. With the elite, not with the people! That’s why if you mention me to the elite today, they will tell you they don’t want to see me. For the elite, their being in politics is for sharing but for me, it is not about that. It’s about service, providing a better future for our children. A father must bequeath a better future for his children. I wish my children the best and do so for others. I save money. So, why won’t I save government’s money?
A father must leave a better place for the children. That’s why he sacrifices to make life better for them. That is what leadership should be. A leader should be able to bequeath the future generation a better society than he met it. If he is not building that better society, he is not a leader.
What would you say is the biggest drawback of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency? Some say nepotism. What is your take?
You have just mentioned it. But not just nepotism, but not focusing on securing Nigeria, building a united Nigeria, focusing in critical areas of what makes a nation and following through. It is not as if he has not said the right things; he has, but the right things are not implemented. A leader must be able to preach and follow it through.