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Why South-East must produce president ― Olu Fasan

Call him a jack of all trades, master of all, and you will not be wrong. Dr. Olu Fasan, who turns 60 today is a journalist, publisher, lawyer, academic, and economist.

With LLB, LLM, MSc (Econ), and Ph.D., Fasan is a visiting fellow and member of the International Trade Policy Unit, ITPU, in the International Relations Department of The London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also a researcher for the International Growth Centre, IGC, a joint Oxford-LSE policy research center.

He does research in law and political economy, focusing on trade and economic law and policies, particularly in developing countries. He has written in peer-reviewed journals.

His most recent journal article is ‘Commitment and Compliance in International Law: A Study of the Implementation of the WTO TRIPS Agreement by South Africa and Nigeria’.

In this interview, Dr. Fasan reveals why his opinions appear as anti-Buhari, disclosing that he holds President Muhammadu Buhari in high esteem. He also spoke on the state of the nation and the way forward.

Born in 1960, you are an independence year baby. How do you feel being among those born the year Nigeria got her independence?
Being born in the year that Nigeria became independent creates a bond, a strong affinity, between me and Nigeria.

I regard independent Nigeria as my age-mate, and you know the bond of friendship that normally exists between age-mates, and that’s how, on a sentimental level, I feel about Nigeria. Although I cannot regard myself a “product” of Nigeria because I have had most of my higher education and career overseas, I feel strongly about the country. I want it to succeed.

The truth is whether I like it or not, my name tells everyone I encounter overseas that I am a Nigerian. So, it behooves me to champion the progress of the country. If Nigeria is respected globally, it would rub positively on every Nigerian living abroad.

And if Nigeria is viewed negatively overseas, every Nigerian living abroad shares that burden as well. Every citizen is seen through the prism of his country. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have a good reputation aboard. I am passionate about how the country can change that.

How was your growing up like?

My growing up was challenging but also interesting. I was born in Ondo town, went to St Matthew’s Primary School in Ondo and Gboluji Grammar School in Ile-Oluji. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, as it were.

My father was a farmer, my mother a petty trader. I certainly did not experience poverty in the real sense of the term (we always had food to eat), but, at the same time, I did not have what you might call a middle-class background. In a country where, in those days, unless you were a genius, making progress was about who you knew, who your parents were, I would say that I did not have the opportunities that a middle-class background would give.

So, everything that I achieved was through the grace of God and the dint of hard work. But I wish I had mentoring and guidance to steer me in the right career path early in life. Two careers that always appealed to me were law and journalism, but I ended up obtaining an HND in Business Administration from Yaba College of Technology. It was the desire to achieve those early career dreams that took me overseas in 1989.

What do you miss most about your childhood days or what is your fondest memory?

I really enjoyed my life as a student journalist. I was the editor of the press club in my secondary school and also editor of Yabatech’s students’ newspaper. The interactions that I had with people at different levels, the desire to investigate and write on stories, the fact that virtually every club on campus wanted me to attend their activities and report on them and the fact that school/college management always invited me to important events, giving me unusual access, were some of the highlights of those student journalism days.

I remember an occasion when a club took some of its members to Benin and I was invited (as editor) to come along, but throughout the journey everyone was trying to behave themselves, fearing that I would write an unfavorable story about them when we returned to Lagos. Being a student journalist was really an exciting part of my growing up in Nigeria.

The other was my involvement in the Rotaract Club, the youth wing of Rotary. I was the founding President of the Rotaract Club of Palmgrove, Lagos, and later the District Secretary of Rotaract District 911.

Like student journalism, I really enjoyed my active involvement in the Rotaract Club, especially some of the projects we implemented to support poor and vulnerable people.

As President of the Rotaract Club of Palmgrove, I initiated the Award for Diligence to promote hard work and productivity in the work. We would ask employers to nominate two or three people every year that were really good at their work, and we would give them money and a certificate, presented by a prominent Nigerian.

You are a lawyer, economist, and academic, what informed your career choices?

As I said earlier, law and journalism were the earlier careers that appealed to me. But having studied Business Administration at YabaTech and economics being one of my best subjects, becoming a political economist also became an attractive career. And I have pursued these three careers – law, journalism, and economics – in my long years abroad.

For instance, with respect to journalism, immediately I arrived in the UK, I enrolled for a Diploma in Journalism at the famous London School of Journalism, and after graduating, freelanced for some newspapers before establishing a magazine. The truth is that all three careers are complementary to one another.

As a lawyer, I specialize in business and commercial law; my interest in journalism is also related to business journalism. For instance, the name of the magazine that I set up was Marketfinder International.

What made you choose Economics after going far in Law with a master’s degree?

Well, I wanted to be a specialist lawyer. In particular, I was interested in commercial, business, and trade law. it is difficult to be a trade/commercial/business lawyer without a good background in economics, particularly political economics. For instance, every trade lawyer will tell you it’s all about law, it’s about economics and politics as well.

So, as I said, given my background in Business Administration and in business journalism, and considering that I wanted to be a business lawyer, I decided that I must study political economics after obtaining my LLM and Bar qualifications. My Ph.D., from the London School of Economics, is in International Economic Law.

I love the multi-disciplinary element of my career. Being able to bring law, economics, and politics together is a real advantage, and it has informed the nature of my public interventions.

60 years after, how would you assess the state of affairs in Nigeria?

Every objective observer would say that Nigeria has not pulled its weight. Nigeria had 35 million people at independence in 1960. Today, it has nearly 200 million.

The only area where Nigeria has made “progress” is in a population explosion. But if you are going to have a large population, then you must have a growing economy because you have to be able to feed your people.

It’s like a man who has 20 children but earning less than N10,000 a month. A growing population and a growing economy must go hand-in-hand. But Nigeria has failed, over the past 60 years, to become a prosperous country.

The fact that Nigeria is “the poverty capital of the world” is a serious indictment on the management of this country since 1960, when countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that were her peers in 1960 have made significant progress.

Secondly, apart from a growing economy, you must have the right institutions and structures that enable your large population to live peaceably and in harmony, so that everyone, every group, can achieve its full potential without feeling that it is being held back by another.

Again, Nigeria has failed in this respect. Its current over-centralized governance structure is not fit for purpose. The country cannot make progress with the politico-governance structure it currently has.

So, the state of affairs in Nigeria is not good at all. And things will get worse unless there is a radical change on both the economic and institutional fronts.

21 years of unbroken democratic rule, how has Nigeria fared?

First, it’s a good thing that the military has stayed in the barracks for 21 years now. But by the time Nigeria celebrates unbroken democratic rule for 24 years in 2023, 16 of those 24 years would have been under former military rulers – Obasanjo, 8; Buhari 8.

The remaining 8 were under people hand-picked by Obasanjo, namely, Yar’Adua, 3; Goodluck Jonathan, 5.

Don’t get me wrong, all of these people went through an election, a democratic process. But my point is that these 21 years, soon to be 24 years in 2023, show that Nigeria’s politics and democracy have not matured so much so that only former military dictators and their hand-picked candidates could become president.

Nigeria’s politics and democracy would have matured when someone can emerge through a party system on merit, not at the behest of a godfather, and become president, having been seen by Nigerians as the most competent and visionary of the candidates.

The second point is that 21 years of unbroken democratic rule has not delivered the so-called dividends of democracy for Nigerians.

For instance, poverty and inequality remain deep and widespread in Nigeria. Human rights abuses have not gone away, despite the democratic rule.

Corruption, lack of transparency and lack of accountability are still defining features of governance in Nigeria, despite the democratic rule.

Of course, like Chief Obafemi Awolowo once said, the worst civilian government is better than the best military regime because, at least, people can, to some extent, still talk and criticize the government. But democracy should be more than being able to criticize your government; it must be about freedom and prosperity for the people.

So, for me, Nigeria has not fared better, despite the 21 years of unbroken democratic rule. The only thing is that the soldiers have stayed in their barracks, which is great. But other than that, there is little else; the economy is comatose, poverty is rife, insecurity has taken thousands of lives; corruption is endemic; virtually no state institution in Nigeria is working as it should.

Essentially, Nigeria is a fragile state, with state capacity almost non-existent. But I repeat Awolowo’s famous words: the worst civilian government is better than the best military regime. So, long may the unbroken democratic rule continue! And, hopefully, Nigeria will be restructured so it can achieve its full potential.

From your columns, your critics consider you as President Buhari’s enemy. What is your take on this?

Ah, that’s totally wrong. I’m not President Buhari’s enemy. He is a man of integrity and I have nothing against him as a person. But as a leader, it’s a different matter completely.

My real question is why did Buhari want so desperately to become a civilian president so much so that he ran for that office four times?

In my BusinessDay column during the election in 2015, I wrote consistently that Jonathan did not deserve another term for his utterly poor performance, particularly on the corruption and insecurity fronts, but that Buhari was not the answer either.

Buhari has no idea how to run an economy; he thinks that he could command an economy, as he commanded his soldiers while in the army, and it would respond to him.

But an economy does not respond to presidential orders or even to a president’s good intentions. It responds to the right incentives. But Buhari has been disincentivizing economic growth through bad policies.

Instead of a market economy; he wants a statist one; instead of private-sector-driven growth, he is trying to pursue a state-led one.

But what Nigeria needs is a competitive market economy that would attract private investment, local and international, and generate growth and create jobs.

Then, on politics, I find Buhari’s refusal to accept and lead a national consensus for restructuring Nigeria unacceptable. He is running this country stubbornly. A true leader must build consensus for positive change. All over the world, whether in the UK or the US, progressive parties and governments have been agents of reforms.

For instance, it was Tony Blair’s Labour government that created devolved governments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Buhari says he is a “progressive”, but he doesn’t believe in reforms; rather he defends the status quo.

Tell me, what institutional reforms have Buhari introduced in his five years in government? Where is the bureaucratic or civil service reform? Where is the judicial reform? Where is the reform of the public sector so it can be effective? Has he ever talked about political reforms?

So, I’m not Buhari’s enemy. But on the issues that I am passionate about, which I believe will enable this country to make progress – political, economic, and institutional reforms – Buhari is on the wrong paths. So, I’m his critic, not his enemy!

What is your assessment of President Buhari’s administration on fighting insecurity and graft and improving the economy?

On insecurity, he promised to make Nigeria and Nigerians safer. But under him, the killer herdsmen have killed thousands of innocent Nigerians. Under him, Boko Haram remains strong and causing havoc. Buhari himself said recently that he’s surprised Boko Haram still exists.

On corruption, he has failed to improve Nigeria’s reputation for graft. He is personalizing the fight against corruption, rather than institutionalizing it. Yet, Nigeria can’t fight corruption without strong, independent institutions.

On the economy, the simple truth is that Buhari has no clue about what yields good economic performance.

Permutations and jostling for 2023 presidency have started. What is your take on the clamor for power-shift to the South? Between South-West and South-East where should it swing?

Power must return to the South, and in my view, it must go to the South-East. By the election of 2023, Nigeria would have had 24 years of unbroken democratic rule.

Out of those 24 years, the South-West produced president for 8 years and vice president for another 8 years; the north produced president for 8 years and vice president for 13 years; the South-South produced president for 5 years.

No one from the South-East would have governed this country in that 24 years. If the South-West has power for another 8 years from 2023, it must then go back to the North after that 8 years for their own 8 years.

You can imagine what that would mean for the South-East. The Igbo must not be given the impression that they are second-class citizens in Nigeria who are not trusted to run the country.

But what we really need is restructuring because without restructuring, whoever is there, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani, the social tension and political division will continue.

What is the way forward for the country?

Restructuring, restructuring, restructuring! We must come together to rebuild Nigeria. Without that there would be no progress.

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