President of the Senate in the Third Republic, Senator Iyorchia Ayu, tells SUNDAY ABORISADE that Nigeria requires a leader that will organise its human and natural resources for a desired transformation
Are you proud to be a Nigerian?
Yes, I am very proud to be a Nigerian. I was born before independence. I lived through the colonial era as a kid. I witnessed the difficult crisis we went through in the First Republic. Later, I witnessed the Civil War as a matured young man. In spite of the entire crisis we went through, I think we have done enough in building the fabric of Nigeria and I have great hopes that Nigeria is going to be one of the great countries not just in Africa, but in the whole world. Therefore, we should never despair when we face challenges.
Are you a citizen of another country apart from Nigeria?
No, I will never take the citizenship of any other country. Nigeria has done so much for me. The country trained me educationally, it has offered me political opportunities to serve, first as a minister in four different ministries, later as a senator, and then as president of the senate. I consider myself a Nigerian statesman and I cannot adulterate it with the citizenship of another country.
What is your opinion about the leaders we have had since independence?
There are failures, there are challenges and there are also successes. If you look at what our fathers who fought for independence and ruled us briefly did, you will discover that the foundation they laid was not a particularly strong one, coupled with the fact that subsequent ambitious military officers carried out series of distortions probably because they were too young. They actually pulled us back. However, in spite of everything, we have recorded quite a number of successes. The unfortunate thing is that we dwell more on failures than on the achievements we have made over the years.
The biggest assets of a country are its human resources. We have built tremendous human capabilities in every field of endeavour that you can think of. From just four universities in the country at independence, we have well over 100 all over Nigeria now. We also have a number of polytechnics and Colleges of Education, which goes to show that we have a pool of trained manpower. The only regret is that the growth rate in the economic sector does not encourage maximum use of the manpower.
How well has Nigeria fared in the last 57 years as a nation?
Fifty-seven years is actually a limited time to assess our greatness as a nation. Let me speak about the United Kingdom that colonised us. I was a student in England for about five years and I was shocked to see that there were so many illiterates all over the place. There were more than three million illiterates in England at the close of the 1980s and we had a similar statistics in the United States, which is supposed to be the greatest country on earth. Hurricane Katrina revealed the dark side of the US when we saw the massive poverty in New Orleans. It is not that everything is also rosy in the countries that we are celebrating across the globe. There is massive poverty and degradation there too.
I believe that if you look at Nigeria today, we are much more united than people think, especially among the younger generation. If you were invited to 10 wedding ceremonies, eight of them would be cross-cultural marriages; some of them would be across religious divides. The National Youths Service Corps, which was put in place when I was an undergraduate, has produced so many cross-cultural people. In fact, today, my argument is that we don’t need the NYSC again because Nigerians are now willing to work anywhere, marry anywhere and settle anywhere in the country.
If you look at our football teams in the 1970s, you will discover that most players in the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan were Yoruba, while players of the Enugu Rangers were Igbo. Now, the story has changed. These are small gains which are significant in strengthening the social fabric of the nation. Nigeria is becoming more and more united and integrated now than the situation we had in the past.
What is your view about today’s leaders compared to the situation at independence?
Nigerians are ready to work under a good leader now, but the unfortunate dimension now is leadership. We have not produced leadership that will qualitatively lift us forward. I believe that if we were fortunate with “digital” leadership, we will not be where we are today. All along, we have had “analogue” leaders. We need a “digital” leader that will take us to the end of the 21st century. I believe we will soon have one.
What do you mean by a digital leader?
A digital leader is somebody who is forward-looking, contemporary, understands the issues, has the capability, and is well trained. He will see Nigeria as his own constituency, not just his village. He is somebody who can proudly copy best practices, whether from China, Ireland or anywhere. Look at what is happening in China, which was a very backward country up to 1979. A great leader emerged afterwards and transformed it to a great country that everybody respects today. I believe that we need such a forward-looking leader who has a vision, competence and the capability of mobilising everybody towards the direction of progress. Once that happens, all forms of agitations will disappear.
What is your view on true federalism and how can we achieve it?
There are more than 80 federations in the world. No single federation is the same. Each is premised on its own history and peculiarities. If you look at the Swiss Confederation, it is almost like a confederation where decisions are taken at very small country levels. The Australian federation is different. The South African federation is different as is that of the United States of America. There is nothing like a standardised federalism that some people are talking about. Every nation works out things based on its history.
We have been restructuring Nigeria even before the British left. There were about six amalgamations. The 1914 amalgamation was the ultimate one, but there were several others in the South and in the North just to bring people together. Later, we divided into regions. Unfortunately, if we are going to blame anybody for the over-centralisation that everybody is complaining about, it is Aguiyi Ironsi, a military head of state from the South-East. He was the one that enacted the unitary decree that pulled everybody together. He saw Nigeria as a military structure. Subsequent military regimes continued from where he stopped.
What do you think about calls for restructuring?
The restructuring that people are talking about now is a misnomer. What we should be advocating is devolution of power. More powers should be given to the states. People thought if we returned to the 1963 constitution, everything would be in order, which is not correct. What we lacked now is purposeful leadership. We need someone who has the capacity to galvanise Nigeria into its greatness.
What do we need to do so that Nigeria will be on a par with other nations that were on the same level with us at independence?
In history, empires rise and fall; nations go up, nations go down. Great nations of today may become backward tomorrow and another one may emerge. The Asian Tigers, for instance, took certain definite steps whether in agriculture, manufacturing or finance. We need to learn from them. It is not as if we should copy everything about them because some of their policies may not be applicable to Nigeria. If we have a leader who believes in collective leadership or that believes in the best brains that Nigeria has, a roadmap that would move Nigeria forward could be worked out. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia that have moved forward so rapidly do not have the resource base of Nigeria. They don’t have the agricultural, water, mineral and human resources that we have in abundance here. We have greater potentials; what we need is someone that will transform them to reality.
Are you saying that we have not been able to produce any leader that can carry out such a reform since independence?
So far, if you look at the types of leaders that have ruled Nigeria as president since independence, realistically, they are not good enough to transform Nigeria. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo unfortunately did not lead Nigeria as a country, otherwise this country would have been greater than this by now. He showed leadership, was very educated and well prepared, and very organised also. He made tremendous impact on his immediate region and moved it forward. Even in the context of Nigeria today, that impact is still there. The blueprint he had was still being followed by the subsequent generations. It clearly showed that if he had ruled Nigeria, his transformation in the Western region would have reflected across the country.
As a former Senate President, what is your assessment of the roles of the National Assembly during your time and now?
Nigerians are unfairly criticising the National Assembly. Lawmakers only make laws; they cannot go ahead and implement them. There are many bills passed by the National Assembly in the last 16 years which were not implemented. There is a symbiotic relationship between the legislature and the executive. I believe that most of the problems between the two arms of government emanated from the executive. The legislature is an institution that has been trying to find its feet over the years. I think the National Assembly, so far, is doing its best. The criticisms mainly are against its annual budget, which if pulled together, does not even add up to what the executive spends through two ministries in a year.