INTERVIEW: Federal Govt. violating constitutional provisions – Group slams Tinubu
- President of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr. Pogu Bitrus has described the planned removal of subsidy on education by the government as a very dangerous move which is capable of bringing setbacks to the country. He accused the government of violating the relevant provisions of the constitution that deal with the welfare of the people.
In this interview, he shares his thoughts on a wide range of national issues, including the biting hardship occasioned by fuel subsidy removal, the recent protest by labour unions, the screening of the ministerial nominees by the Senate and the coup in Niger Republic, among others.
Nigerians are lamenting that the Federal Government did not only remove subsidy on petroleum products but also on education. This, they said, is responsible for the sudden increase in the fees of the Unity Schools from N45,000 to N100,000 per term. What are your thoughts on that?
That is killing Nigeria. Our goals economically and industrially are all premised on education. A nation that ignores education is a nation that is going to kill itself and die. We are where we are because of education. The most important thing is, let the good brains be supported; whether you are the son of a poor man who cannot afford quality education, it should be provided because that quality brain can transform things in this country.
Education deserves to be subsidised so that Nigerians who are brainy, who have the capacity and potential to transform this country can gain useful education and make their contributions to the development of this country. We cannot deny the poor, those who are unable to pay such fees from gaining quality education. It is not right. It is not good for the country and it is not good for development. We need people who have the capacity to gain education with the support of the government and it is important to do that. Removal of all support is dangerous to this country.
What is your reaction to President Tinubu’s nationwide broadcast last week on how to provide palliatives to cushion the harsh effect of fuel subsidy removal? Some people say the speech didn’t hold much hope for Nigerians, do you agree with them?
Yes, I agree totally. There wasn’t much in his speech. As far as I am concerned and many Nigerians share such views, you don’t create a problem and because people are protesting here and there, you then start thinking of palliative; which palliative will solve the problem? The underlying factor is, gentlemen, our economy is in bad shape, let him tell us, and because of that we need more money to run the economy rather than borrowing money. It is going to be painful.
However, it is not all going to come from the sale of petroleum products; we can do XYZ. But you load everything on petroleum products, increased by over 200 percent, and the earnings of Nigerians have not increased by anything. Even what you are talking about is nothing to write home about.
In the first place, he should have said, yes we need to make more money, but in doing so, we don’t have to load everything on Nigerians through the sale of petroleum products; let’s do XYZ. It is not anything shameful to turn back and say gentlemen, this thing is so draconian, Nigerians are finding it difficult to live and we are turning it back and allowing at least 50 percent of whatever it is. That is if it is even proven that petroleum products are being subsidised by the government because up till now it is from one story to another; different persons are saying one thing or the other.
So, the damage has been done; let him revert to a reasonable price that Nigerians can afford, where the impact on the sale of petroleum products will not have adverse effect on other commodities. One ‘mudu’ of grain has risen to N1500. People who survive on a daily basis are finding it extremely hard to live. So, those palliatives or those things he mentioned will not and cannot solve the problems we are facing. The solution for now is to take the fuel pump price back by a margin that will not be so draconian.
Secondly, urgent work should be put into rehabilitating our refineries to be operational so that we will be refining locally and the price of things will go down. We don’t have to base the cost of our refined products on international market price, rather it should be based on what we used to produce and refine ourselves. Let the President do the needful, and let us see if all these are based on some other agenda. No president will come and instead of alleviating the suffering of his people, start to punish his people as if the government is alien to the people. Our constitution clearly states that the primary purpose of government is the security and welfare of the people. Has this primary purpose been met by this government? No. Is our welfare being taken into consideration? No.
So, the constitution is being violated by one government after the other, and this government came in and started by making our welfare a nightmare. It is unfortunate.
One of the fallouts of the labour protest was the promise by President Tinubu that the PH refinery would be operational by December. Considering that similar promises had been made in the past without positive results, do you see any commitment in the President’s promise this time round?
This is an extension of the APC government. I remember very well that early last year or so, that refinery was contracted for turnaround maintenance to one of the APC’s stalwarts and monies were provided for the refinery to work. President Muhammadu Buhari left office without the work being done because it is still not working. President Tinubu is not coming from another political party. He is still from the same APC. If Buhari’s administration, and by extension, the APC government failed, I don’t expect any magic from Tinubu. The promise was just to appease Nigerians to think that there is hope. The monies that are being spent or that were wasted in so many ways in previous years, including the school feeding programme and COVID 19 palliatives are enough to have turned our refineries around and the economy will be booming.
Unfortunately, it is the same technique and methodology that is being repeated over and over again. I don’t have any hope that this promise will produce any positive result.
So, what I am saying is that a lot of money has been spent by the APC government right from the Buhari’s administration, which could have been used to put our refineries in working order. And that didn’t yield any result. We are not expecting any magic. They are saying they are going to continue with the process which Buhari started; it didn’t work then. It is the same APC and we don’t do anything new or anything good to come out of it. Let the President do the needful. The primary purpose of the government is security and welfare of the people. Let the welfare of the people be taken care of. Let him not be a punisher of the people but rather somebody who is caring about the survival of Nigerians and Nigeria.
Are you saying that you are in agreement with those who insisted that the subsidy removal must be reversed?
Yes, I am saying that, but in addition to that, I am also saying that this issue of fuel subsidy is actually fraudulent. The real situation should be explained to Nigerians. In the previous government, they were doing a swap. They give companies crude oil and the companies give back refined petroleum products of that equivalent. That means that there was no subsidy because what you are giving is what you are getting. But, they were telling us there was a subsidy. At a point, NNPCL stopped remitting monies into the federation account. We were selling our products, making money, but yet nothing was coming. It was more like we were dashing out our crude for nothing.
So, there are so many anomalies in governance in this country; things we can’t even explain. So, let experts come in and explain to us what this subsidy is all about. How much is it in real terms? Is it what politicians who just came into office tell us just because they want to make money to run their programmes and they just increased prices? What is the level of subsidy? How did it come about? Nobody has explained that. All they told us was that they are removing subsidies. At some stage, they will say there is no subsidy. So, there are so many discrepancies in the government’s statement and it is the same APC government that left and is in place now. It doesn’t matter whether it was Buhari or it is now Tinubu. It is the APC government; so let the government sit up and tell us the truth.
When they were campaigning to remove Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, they said they were going to reduce the cost of petrol to something lower than N87. What happened when they took over? It went up and nearly doubled, today, it is so many times over. So, the issue is that bad governance is what is killing Nigeria. We need leaders who know what to do and do those things rightly knowing that the primary objective of government is security and welfare of the people. You can’t say this government considered the welfare of Nigerians by slamming this kind of petroleum price on Nigerians; I don’t think so.
What is your take on President Bola Tinubu’s ministerial nominees list?
As far as we are concerned, the ministerial nominees list and so many other things done could be temporary if the judgement of the court comes out now. Even the APC and Tinubu’s counsel are talking about rerun because they know they don’t have a good case. But, are they going to get a rerun? No, and if they don’t, this whole ministerial thing will collapse. The new president will come with his own team. So, when the question arises about the ministerial nominees list, the usual answer I give is that this may be short-lived because the judgement, though they may appeal, may not leave the man in office longer than is necessary.
However, we know that there are some characters that are not supposed to be on any list, whether it is Tinubu’s list or anybody’s list. As a person and as middle-belters, we don’t see somebody like El-Rufai as somebody who should be in leadership position in this country, given his bias and the way he does things.
How would you rate the senators looking at the way they have carried out the screening exercise so far?
Nigerians would want a Senate that is not a rubber stamp to any president but a legislative organ that would scrutinise and look critically at issues and complaints or reports by the security agencies forwarded to them on each individual and those should constitute part of what they would use to determine whether a nominee is qualified to lead or not.
Unfortunately, the Senate appears to be a rubber stamp. And whether it is President Tinubu’s list or the list of any other that might come in as president, the attitude has to change. Let’s have a Senate that stands out as a Senate representing Nigerians that would say yes, because of XYZ, you are not qualified to serve or sir, going by the report we have, you are the kind of person that would add value to the work of Mr. President, otherwise they just say bow and go. So, why should they come in there? Why doesn’t the president just appoint? But the constitution provides that the Senate has to screen and agree or disagree before the person assumes office as a minister. So, let them do their job and stop saying bow and walk away.
As the final judgement of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal is being awaited, what should be the expectations of Nigerians?
Given that the legal processes or the law is the final arbiter, and the hope of the common man, Nigerians believe that all those injustices, abnormalities, and disregards for constitutionality that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has done or committed would be exposed and judgement given appropriately and accordingly. Somebody walks in, changes results from polling units, destroys result sheets and refuses to upload results and others, the laws of the nation are so clear on some of these things. And we believe that the judges will do the needful. They will do the right thing and make a pronouncement that will save the nation because today, our hope is on them. The INEC has done the wrong thing and that is why we are in court. If the right thing was done and the right person declared after the right thing had been done, I believe some people will not even petition or go to court but they are in court because they believe that the wrong things were done by INEC. Some of them believe that the constitutional requirement for someone to be president was not there, yet INEC pronounced somebody the president.
Looking at Tinubu’s appointment of ministers, someone told me that somebody from the FCT has now been appointed a minister; that could be in anticipation of another election so that he can get 25 percent of the votes cast in the FCT. They know the law requires that a candidate needs 25 percent votes in the FCT to be president; if not, why will he now prefer to appoint someone from the FCT as minister? So, let us not deceive ourselves; we are expecting the right thing to be done and we believe that these judges will do the right thing.
A military coup has just happened in Niger Republic; do you think there are lessons for Nigerian leaders to learn from that?
Of course, there are lessons to be learnt by our leaders from the Niger experience. Look at the reasons for the coup; those reasons equally apply to Nigeria. The current military leader is saying that certain forces will tell them not to shoot the insurgents, and that the regime of the former democratically elected President, Basoum, was allowing the terrorists to continue riding roughshod on Nigerien, because he was leaned more towards France than to the people of Niger.
Now, all those things also apply here in Nigeria. We have heard of so many complaints by our troops. They know the locations of the Boko Haram Islamist terrorists but they are not allowed to go and uproot them. So many things were happening in the government of Buhari.
Today, it is Tinubu. So, those things also apply in Nigeria. Who is manipulating the system and allowing our people to suffer? Are we jeopardising our own interest because of some foreign interests? Why are our refineries not working and we are importing fuel from Europe? So many things are similar. So, the lesson here is when people are pushed to the wall, they will react. Nigerians should not think that our military is passive. When they see that things are not right, they might intervene. In spite of the fact that the military has supported our democracy for over 20 years, it doesn’t mean that if things continue to go wrong and politicians continue to play not according to the rules, that military intervention is not possible. It is possible here and anywhere where the rule of law is ignored; and where the primary objective of government which is security and welfare of the people are abandoned and ignored. When such situations become the order of the day, then certainly something could happen just as it happened in Niger. So, we should learn a lesson and correct our ways. Let the politicians do the right thing so that we don’t fall into a similar pit hole.
What are your views about the threat by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to use force on the military leaders in Niger if after seven days they did not restore the democratically elected government in that country?
When you talk of the ECOWAS, you are talking about Nigeria because in the long run, if there should be any military force, it will be Nigeria that is going to do it. It is Nigeria that will be providing the funds. It is Nigeria that will be taking the brunt. We have spent so much in just trying to contain the insurgency within the country. Look at our economic situation; is it worth it to waste more resources and put our people in danger? Remember that Niger is not a far country. Many of the States in the north share commonalities. I remember that during the military regime of one our past military leaders, Abba Kyari was the Military Governor of North Central states, and his brother was a district head in Niger Republic. So, there are Kanuri here and Kanuri there, Hausa here and Hausa there, Fulani here and Fulani there. Some of these people have just the so-called boundary dividing them but they are the same people. Some of them will even sabotage our people during any military intervention.
So, the better thing to do is to diplomatically approach the issue. Yes, a coup has taken place and the plotters have their grievances but they seem to be having a lot of support from within and even from outside the country, other than those in ECOWAS. And even the ECOWAS has split. Ivory Coast and Mali are supporting Niger. So, we have to tread with caution. We should look at the underlying factors. The coup plotters are claiming that they are trying to free Nigeriens from the colonial stranglehold of France. And that is why they seem to be getting the support they are getting. We have to look at these things passionately. Let us not try to appease western powers and by doing so further destroy our economy, which has already been battered. My advice is that we should tread with caution