Professor Assisi Asobie, former Chairman of the Governing Board of the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI), is an exceptional Nigerian who has earned his place of honour based on the fact that he is a highly focused and deeply principled personality. As a former President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and a renowned campaigner for oil sector transparency in Nigeria (formerly for Transparency International Nigeria), he has remained forthright in propagating for good governance in the country. It is remarkable that he is currently Co-chair of the Nigeria Natural Resource Charter and acts on the social development group of the expert panel. In this interview with TheEconomy’s Chinedu Obike, Professor Asobie speaks on burning national issues, particularly the ongoing anti-corruption war, reforms in the oil sector, Boko Haram insurgency and the problems besetting the education sector. Excerpts:
You once described President Goodluck Jonathan as Nero. Today, the government in power blames him for virtually every ill in society. Do you feel vindicated?
I wouldn’t change the description. That was in 2013 and what was happening at that time was that while the criminal activities of Boko Haram were raging, series of parties were being held in the Villa and it was in that context that I made the description. I just didn’t think that the country was in the mood for celebration while people were dying in all parts of the country, including Abuja.
My term as Chairman of NEITI (Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative) began when Jonathan and President Yar’Adua took office and I continued with him even after Mr President (Yar’Adua) died. So, I also had an opportunity of face-to-face, one-to-one interaction with him. I think that basically, he was not prepared for office. But fortunately for him, there was a programme; the Vision 2020 plan derived from the Ecowas Vision 2020. It wasn’t just a Nigerian thing. He extracted a visual component and called it the transformation agenda. I didn’t like that because it was a distortion of the vision itself. Let me give you an example.
Going by the vision, if we were to develop and become one of the 20 most industrialised and developed nations in 2020, we would have to grow at 13.8 percent and they were talking about achieving half of that as their target and it really made sense. Secondly, Vision 2020 emphasises industrialization and that was not a major plank of their policy. He had a lot of information about what was going on in the oil and gas sector at that time, in terms of reports by NEITI, and I remember having a crucial meeting with him in July 2011 where he promised to implement the reports, but that he would first have me come and brief the entire cabinet, but it never happened.
Virtually everything wrong today is blamed on the immediate past government? Is that the right attitude?
It is for us to correct that now as observers, analysts, and the people. We should correct that. The way you assess a government is not the extent to which it inherited problems or not. You evaluate a government through documents because I believe in documents. There are two official development programmes: one is still the Vision 2020 which is to run till 2020, and the present government has departed completely from it.
You can also assess the government based on its own manifesto. The APC has a manifesto and that manifesto, in terms of the economy, is built around creating jobs, and that’s the most important item on that manifesto. And that jobs would be created by the state, not the private sector. More importantly, it will be done through industrialization, not agriculture. There are many roadmaps. Let me give you examples of few of the roadmaps, and you will see how they have departed from that policy. One of their promises was that each state of the federation would generate about 20,000 jobs per annum, and for each job that is created by a state, the federal government would create two more. It is a big thing all together, because according to them, 100 million Nigerians are living on N60 per day. Therefore, in order to solve that problem, the government would focus on job creation and industrialization. But that is not what is going on now. The item in the manifesto they are implementing is the N5,000 stipend and that is a very small matter. With regards to anti-corruption, the major point they made was that they were going to change the strategies for fighting corruption; that those arrested for alleged corruption would be given the opportunity to prove their innocence. How would they do that? They would use your means of lifestyle to determine whether what you are displaying is commensurate with your earnings and you will be arrested and questioned to prove how you made the wealth. That’s one of the things they said they would do. Significantly, too, they promised to be transparent in the award of contracts; it would be opened to the public. And in his 100 days in office, he still talked about transparency in the award of contracts and to put transparency on a priority list, he said he was going to declare his assets to show personal example and that all his ministers would do the same. What I’m saying is, analysts should not allow government to tell us the criteria for assessing them. The criteria are documented and these documents are the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, their manifesto and whatever policy they have in the office. All these will give us criteria for assessing them.
You were once quoted as saying that nothing much will be achieved in the fight against corruption using EFCC and ICPC. Do you still hold that view?
I was not only chairman of NEITI. People didn’t really know this because it wasn’t published. I had in NEITI a unit called TUGA (Transparency Unit on Accountability and Governance) and part of what it did was to bring scientific method into fighting corruption. But one of the things that it did, with I as chairman, was to create a network or rather, a coordinating team made up of chairmen of all the anti-corruption agencies. Working with the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) in Kaduna, we actually brought out a strategic document for fighting corruption in Nigeria because it is a requirement of the United Nations that all UNCAC (United Nations Convention Against Corruption) member-states must have such a document that is approved by the people through their participation. So, we produced such a document and I personally led the team to present it to Mohammed Adoke, who was the Attorney General in 2011. I left in January 2012 and I did that in 2011. Before the press and so on, he thanked us and said he was going to make sure that it was approved by the executive council. But, I haven’t seen or heard any reference to that document since then. However, there was a time I read in the papers where the chairman of the Presidential Committee Against Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay was quoted to have said that they do have such a document. I think they have it on the websites of the anti-corruption agencies and we ought to participate in implementing it. It is not a federal document; it is a national document. In other words, is he fighting corruption as required by the United Nations Organisation? So, I think that is the major problem he has. Talking about detailed promises, he said he was going to ensure that the ICPC, which is the real anti-corruption outfit and the EFCC which is the financial crime agency and all such organisations, has, first, autonomy, independence from his interference. Secondly, he promised the agencies would be thoroughly funded. Do you know how the EFCC used to get its own funding? By bribing civil servants. The EFCC used to bribe civil servants to increase their budget; they bribe the National Assembly to increase their budget. When an agency like that bribes civil servants, how can it fight corruption? They are poorly funded. So, what I am saying about this fight against corruption is that it is not systematic and the whole strategy is wrong. What is that strategy? The EFCC is making noise about enforcement, but Buhari’s main strategy is not really enforcement. If you look at it very closely, it is what is called on-conviction-based- assets recovery. That is what he is doing. In other words, try and get some of the money stolen or recovered without going to court. That is what he is doing and it is not going to work because the nature of corruption in Nigeria is systematic; it is not endemic. To be endemic means it is peculiar to Nigeria, but by being systematic, it means that it has eaten into all the fabrics and institutions. Corruption in Nigeria is systematic and there is a theoretical basis for dealing with systematic corruption. Corruption that occurs episodically with few people involved is what they call the theory of principal agent. But systematic corruption is dealt with by corrective action. It is assumed that you have to use corrective action and the beginning of that corrective action is what is called the ‘Big Bang Theory’, which means you target the ones everybody thinks are untouchable. You catch them first and deal with them. Then, their supporters will take flight. But, the big fishes are crawling; I mean are swimming freely. So, there is nothing really systematic about this.
In other words, you are not satisfied with the way the war against corruption is being prosecuted?
Certainly not. It’s not being prosecuted systematically and strategically.
On a scale of 1-10, how would you assess the present administration?
Well, you can assess it from 1-10 generally. In terms of corruption, there is an organization that does it year after year. I think in 2016, what they scored was 2.8 over 10; or going by the index they use now, .28 over 100. That’s what they scored and that’s the highest they have ever scored. 2.8 over 10 is very low because the minimum you can score in the TICPI index is 3 and 3 is still below the accepted benchmark, which is 5. If you score 5 over 10, then you have moved over to the clean bar; you are no longer unclean. As far as I know, only Botswana has achieved that. Other countries close to that are South Africa and Ghana. Nigeria has never passed 2.8; they have never reached 3, not to talk of 5 and that is very low.
Now, apart from corruption, the government also promised to fix the economy and tackle security. How well has it done in these areas?
Let’s take security first. The government thinks that the greatest security challenge in Nigeria is Boko Haram insurgency, right? If the government thinks that they can kill off the Boko Haram militants, it only means that Buhari and his people are thinking in terms of conventional warfare in combating the insurgents who are involved in guerrilla warfare. So, what does that mean? When they have arms and people, they do confrontational warfare but that is not their main strategy. Their main strategy is ‘hit and run’ and in the theory of guerrilla warfare, time is of the essence. In other words, it is a protracted war; it’s a war of attrition. So, the longer it lasts, the better for them, so the government’s strategy does not fit the tactic being used by the enemy. Secondly, it is not just a war to be won on the battle field. It is also a war of ideology; a war of ideas. But it is not being fought rightly, as far as I know.
But the impression Nigerians have is that Boko Haram has been degraded?
Degraded doesn’t mean defeated. If you have a group of people who use time as their main weapon, what it means is that whenever they are not acting, they are reorganising; they are getting more funds and recruits; that’s what they are doing. So, when they reinforce and come back, the circle of killings begins again. So, I think they have not understood what is going on, and therefore not going about it properly.
On the economy, I thought they got it right when they put in their manifesto that industrialization is key. It is not just diversification. In fact, diversification into agriculture and solid minerals is important. Also in their manifesto, they promised to work with the legislature to put solid minerals under the control of states; not the federal government because you know that solid minerals are found in almost all the states of the federation, and if you allow them to take control of it and deal in it, do you know what is going to happen? There is going to be competition among the states. But, if you maintain the status quo where the solid minerals are under the control of the federal government, the northern states — Nassarawa, Plateau — name it, even Borno and so on, where you have a lot of solid minerals, will now begin to demand for derivation. When the money accruing from solid minerals is paid into federation account, they will want 50/50 sharing formula. This means indirectly, they will be supporting the Niger Delta on 50 percent derivation and thus, indirectly solving that problem. What I am saying is that our path to economic development is not diversification; what is critical is industrialization. Do you know why? If you industrialise, you are likely to create more jobs than if you focus on agriculture and solid minerals. More importantly, if you industrialise, you are going to get Nigerians more involved in the economy than foreigners. Why? Foreign investors will not be very enthusiastic about industrialization because that is being in competition with them; but Nigerians will be interested. One of the things industrialization will do is to expand your base of participation, which is one of the things they are looking at. Foreign investors will also not support industrialisation because the maturity time of their investments is long-term before you begin to make gains and you don’t want to tie your capital down in one country, because the kind of money we have under globalisation is called virtual or speculative money, rather than money that is invested for a long time. That is the nature of globalisation.
How will you appraise the ongoing reforms in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector?
Well, I don’t know what reforms you are talking about. When Kachikwu became Minister of State (Petroleum), one of the things he did, which was good, was to abolish the oil-for-product swaps and went on to direct selling process. He also started a process of transparency by publishing monthly financial reports and that was good, too. But you know, the major thing about the oil industry is PIB, the Petroleum Industry Bill. That’s the major problem and that’s where the reform lies. I don’t know how to put it into their heads that the best thing to do is to split the bill into parts, so you can have a petroleum industry governance bill, which is the very first one they touched, to make it easy. But if you read what they did there, you will discover that they toned down the principles of the idea. Let me give an example. The very first principle for the oil industry is that the majority of the people must get the greatest benefits, social and economic. The clauses of that first part of the bill have it that the people’s benefits come first, before the interest of the investors. In order words, fiscal regimes; how much you pay and start operations, and so on comes first before the investors. But, this has been reversed. It looks like a minor issue, but it is a serious matter. Secondly, they are avoiding the most difficult part of it thinking that eventually, gradually they will get there and it will be easy. No! What killed PIB during Yar’Adua, to the end of Jonathan’s regime was fiscal regime; how much tax, particularly the production sharing contract tax. That is what killed it. Why? Because oil companies were insisting that the present fiscal regime, tax regime and so on, was done through bilateral contract and that any country that tries to change that without legislation is breaking an agreement. That was the original agreement. The major problem was he wanted to revive, for the benefit of Nigerians, the fiscal regime. So, it was the oil companies that killed the regime. So, I’m saying you should get there because avoiding it does not solve any problem. My stand is that if the PIB is not passed, there will be no true reform.
The way it is now, you don’t feel that PIB would actually achieve its objective?
I am not saying the PIB is not going to be passed. I’m not talking about the contents of the objective. I am saying that they have truncated it by taking it bit by bit. By that, they have watered it down and that’s the point I am really making. I am saying that they will not even achieve passing it in the first place and trouble will start when they now want to co-ordinate and produce it in a day.
You are a member of the panel of experts of the NNRC. How do the activities of the organisation impact on Nigeria and Nigerians?
The NNRC (Nigeria Natural Resource Charter) is a state of precepts. There are two precepts. They constitute a framework for assessing the performance of a country in the management of oil and gas. Let me take one or two precepts. The first one, which I have already mentioned here, is to determine whether the oil extracted is managed to the benefit of the greatest number of people, economic and social. What that really means is, when you decide to take the oil from the ground, and sell and make money, you should calculate the net benefits. It is not just how much you are getting from it; it is how much you are getting minus how much it is costing you, including environmental costs. It is not compulsory that you must extract. There may be occasions when you would say, “now, I don’t want to extract”. After all, America did that for some time. Why not? When you think that the overall benefits are not really positive. That’s the first thing. The second precept is about transparency and accountability, and so on. There are about two. The last precept is about the private sector. There is also a precept about the way the oil money is being managed, and also about the quality of spending and so on. So, that’s what the NNRC does. In this respect, I have a criticism of Nigeria. The criticism I have is the same I have for NEITI, which I was also part of. If Nigeria implemented all the two precepts perfectly, Nigeria and Nigerians will benefit from oil extraction. As it is, Nigerians aren’t also benefitting because the assumption of the precept was that we will be selling the oil raw; the assumption is that you will get oil from the ground and sell it as a raw material for others to buy, refine and benefit. Those who buy the crude benefit far higher than those who own it. It is assumed that we will remain producers of oil, rather than people who developed industrial chemical complexes. So, I am saying that implementing it to the full will not in the long-term benefit a country. You must, therefore, revise it in such a way that you encourage them to actually keep much of it within the country and use it for industrialisation. I am a member of the NNRC. In fact, I am the co-chair while (Odein) Ajumogobia is the chair. What I am saying is that unfortunately, we have not been able to get the government to use it as a benchmark to assess itself. But that has been achieved in two countries: Tanzania and Sierra Leone.
Is there a possibility you would?
Yes, we are working on it. We are trying to do the latest benchmark now for 2017.
Do you subscribe to the call to abolish the excess crude account?
The excess crude account is illegal. It is a public policy that didn’t get the buy-in- of the legislature, so, it will be replaced by the Sovereign Wealth Fund. The SWF has a legal backing but the problem I have with what is going on is that Nigeria is not managing it in accordance with the international best practices. One of the countries that manages it well is Norway; another is Azerbaijan. Take Norway for instance. They also call it Sovereign Wealth Fund. How do they manage it?
Whatever money they get from the oil sector, they invest it 100 percent, and invest mostly abroad. The interest on it they put in their annual budget and in fact, used for deficit budgeting; deliberate deficit budgeting. The deficit budget is funded by that investment and this strengthens the Krone, which is the national currency. But more importantly, it accumulates a lot of savings such that the country is unlikely to be in any difficulty anytime. When it was started here, it was used for 2nd Niger Bridge, etc. So, we are not investing it, as it should be. I am not saying we should invest 100 percent, because Norway’s population is small in relation to their GDP. Our population is large, but we should not invest for a few months and then clear it. By the time Jonathan was leaving, they claimed they had about US$3 billion left. That of Norway is about $198 billion or more. So, the excess crude account is no longer necessary when you have the Sovereign Wealth Fund. I think the National Assembly is right.
Accountability and transparency is a huge problem in Nigeria. How has the NNPC fared in that light?
You know, there is a real consensus on the formula for transparency and accountability. Generally, it also applies to oil and gas. Monopoly breeds corruption and if you need a clean NNPC, you must do away with monopoly and bring in competition; and remove the discretionary powers of the minister or head of state. So, for me, it is simple enough. That is the basic principle and we were able to get them to agree that one of the basic principles guiding the NNPC reform is that the reforms should align itself with the principles of NEITI. You can summarise it as TADPAC —Transparency, Accountability, Due Process and Anti-Corruption. These are the principles on which NEITI operates. So, if you apply this, plus the formula I read out earlier, you are likely to have a good result in whatever you produce as the reform package.
Restructuring is one topic that has been generating reactions lately. Where do you stand on this debate?
I wrote an article in 1995 and the article was titled “Centralising Trends in Nigeria’s Federalism”. In it, I tried to establish what has happened to the Nigerian federation over the years and I argued against the popular view that the tendency to centralise authority in Nigeria was due to military rule.
I argued that it was a direct and almost automatic response to the changing structure in the Nigerian economy; that it was oil and the desire to control oil that actually led to a centralised structure. So, one of the problems of the Nigerian federation is that it is too centralised; power is allocated to the centre. Secondly, a lot of power is in the hands of the president, one man. So, that’s the major problem.
Therefore, you have to reverse that by giving more powers to states than they presently control. About 68 items were taken from the concurrent and residual lists and passed onto the exclusive list gradually. So, you have to look back there and if you transfer functions, then you have to transfer funds, in terms of revenue allocation formula. If that is what they mean by restructuring, it is very important. But what I am saying is that if you do that when the economy is still centralised, when oil is still the main source of revenue, it will not work, politically. People will not agree and that was why I mentioned earlier on that if you develop the solid minerals sector, and a new group of beneficiaries come up, who would now say they will not benefit from this derivation?
As it is, the South West is leading the call but it does appear the North is not as enthusiastic as the rest of the country. What’s responsible for that?
It is because oil is found now in the west or south-west; and there is oil in the south –south and in the south-east. But, there is gold in Sokoto, uranium in Borno; there are also minerals in Nassarawa and Plateau and so on. In other words, you should begin by making sure that you change the arrangement. Even if you don’t make it residual but it is concurrent, this will generate demand for restructuring. I am saying that there is a linkage between the political and economic structures. To tackle the political structure, we must deal with the economic structure. That’s the point I am making and you can do it simply by changing the control of solid minerals; once you begin with that, then it becomes easier to deal with oil. That’s actually the point I made.
As a former president of ASUU and renowned scholar, how would you describe the state of education in Nigeria?
It is very sad. It is very sad, indeed. The primary level is very weak. It has been neglected. Firstly, the funding has been very low, extremely low. When you allot 6 or 7% of the budget to education, it will not work at all. That is one way they destroyed it. Another way they ruined education was by centralising it and allowing a lot of activities to go on at the local government level. Teachers’ salaries began to come from the local governments, which have little or no funds at their disposal. So, central to the issue of education is funding. But you know that funding also has an ideological kind of origin, because there was a time in the nation’s history, between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the federal government agreed with the World Bank that Nigeria does not need university education, but that it should rather concentrate on primary education. Do you know what that means? Because those who teach in primary schools are trained in colleges of education, and those who teach in the colleges of education are trained in the universities. If you now weigh down on university education, you are indirectly killing the secondary and the primary education, by starving them of personnel. In other words, there was external intervention in Nigeria’s education policy and ASUU fought tooth and nail over the matter and many people went to prison for it.
Let me tell you the truth about what is going on. First, the amount of money budgeted for education in the national budget every year is too small for a country like ours. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Training and Development) prescribes that if you want to develop at the rate of double digits, you must at least budget 25 percent of your GDP into education; you must mobilise 25 percent of your GDP, annually, into the education budget.
Most important of all, Nigeria is yet to accept that there is an organic link between university education and development. China has understood that and has classified their universities. Universities are not just producers of high manpower; they are basically research organisations. It’s called Triple Helix Model. Nigeria is not following that model yet and that is why the education sector is still undeveloped.
Now, critics say trade unionism has contributed immensely in bringing education to its knees in Nigeria through its selfishness and lack of internal mechanism to uphold standard. Do you agree with this?
It is the opposite. It is the very opposite of what you are saying. Many people have confessed that it is only when ASUU goes on strike that funding of universities and the education sector increases.
So, one of the things we do to sustain education in the country is negotiations which we usually back up with strikes to compel the government to comply. In fact, trade unions help to sustain the education system. That is the truth. If you count the number of days we have gone on strike versus the number of days government itself has closed the universities, either because of students’ riot or for one reason or the other, their own days are higher in number than ours. So, it is not true.