In this interview with Vincent Obia, Prfessor Akinyemi says the coming of United States ultranationalist president-elect, Donald Trump, offers Nigeria an opportunity to re-evaluate its role in the international system with a view to refocusing energy on building domestic capacity. Excerpts:
Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader and leading light of the then Non-Aligned Movement, died recently at a time an ultranationalist president, Donald Trump, is about to take over power in the United States, and there is rising nationalistic sentiments in Europe. What is the significance of these events for South/South cooperation?
You know that Fidel Castro had been out of the scene for a considerable number of years, and it is his brother who has been in charge of the policies of Cuba. I don’t think that the death of Castro will have much of an appreciable effect on South/South cooperation or on North/South relationship. But the election of Trump will definitely affect North/South relationship and South/South relationship. I believe that the election of Trump is going to have negative repercussions on North/South relationship in the sense that I expect an indifferent regime in Washington towards North/South relationship or North/South affairs. I think that Trump is going to turn inwards towards rebuilding the United States.
I think that the Americans don’t realise that actually, it is the rest of the world who are buying American goods, who actually are paying for the high standard of living of the American working class. It is because the rest of the world was buying American goods that American workers were able to have two cars in the garage. But if you could buy the same goods, the same cars from other parts of the world, at cheaper prices, people will simply turn around and not buy American goods. That is the first point.
The second point is that the reason America was importing goods from other parts of the world was because American consumers were buying these goods since they were cheaper. Would American consumers be willing to buy American goods at such a high price? And if they were willing, would they have the money to do so? These are the factors that are going to come into play over this matter. But all of these may be to the advantage of South/South relationship in the sense that more people in the South would be buying more goods – because that is what they can afford – from other South/South countries.
Do you see Nigeria as well-positioned to reap optimal benefits from an eventual boost in South/South cooperation?
Unfortunately, no; because we have not developed our industrial base. Our people have been noted for being traders, buying wigs, toothpicks, goods that we could even have been producing and exporting. An increase in South/South trade relations is going to be to the benefit of the people who produce these goods, rather than to the benefit of people who buy these goods, especially, at a period when there is a shortage of foreign exchange.
However, this may be a blessing in disguise, if the foreign exchange available to Nigeria is not going to be recklessly used, as it was done in the past, to import toothpick, rice, ice cream, etc., if in allocating the scarce foreign exchange resources the Central Bank of Nigeria would allocate money to industrialists to bring in machinery, and government itself will give subsidies to some of the factories that can produce machines, which can then be used to manufacture goods in this country. Why, for example, should we be exporting raw palm oil and then turn round to import soap? These medium scale factories that, for example, can treat cassava, palm produce and other things that we produce, and then export them, even if it is going to be at the medium stage, value has been added in Nigeria and we will get money that way. So in a way, it could be a blessing in disguise. But that is assuming that the government itself is going to be disciplined enough. Because this is going to be a long haul.
You have been an advocate of the establishment of a Nigerian coast guard. Are you worried by the effects of the porous nature of the country’s land and maritime borders in an era of global terrorism and other trans-border crimes?
Apart from me having stuck out my neck in advocating a coast guard, in addition to a blue sea navy, the national conference also called for the establishment of a border guard. This is because the assessments of the threat by scholars, basically, have identified our coastal area in terms of our oil exports, mugging of oil products, fisheries, etc. There are trawlers coming from Asia which are busy depleting our fishery reserves. Even if it is the navy itself, depending on how you demarcate areas of jurisdiction, the coastal guard could be for 50 miles, then anything beyond 50 miles could be for the navy. So that would take care of our exclusive economic zone for the navy, while the coastal areas would be for this coastal guard. But this is something that has been thought by every navy administration since this idea was mooted in the 1970s.
I suppose they are afraid that they would have to share resources with the coastal guard, if one is established and separated from them. So there could be a government decision to reassure the navy that they would not have to share the resources; the coastal guard would have its own resources and the navy would have its own resources. But in the long run, Nigeria is going to be the beneficiary. We would be able to clamp down on the smuggling of our oil resources; we would be to clamp down on the illegal fishery activities going on in our exclusive economic zone. Also, the navy would then be of assistance to countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, and all those countries that cannot patrol and protect their fishery resources.
As far as the border guard is concerned, almost all the states that have borders with West African countries complain about the activities of terrorists. They could be economic terrorists coming in to aid smugglers who are smuggling out agricultural products. One has heard, even from government, that trailer loads of rice, potatoes, etc., are going out of the country and that rustlers are coming from these West African countries to rustle cattle, sheep, and other animals.
There was this argument for a national guard at one time, which IBB actually set up, but it was dismantled by Abacha because they thought it had a different purpose. But everybody can see now that the Nigerian Army cannot cope with internal subversion and the trans-border activities of terrorists and saboteurs.
In the effort to secure the country’s vast land borders, some people have suggested walling, others have recommended electronic surveillance. What do you consider the most economically viable way of securing the country’s land borders?
First of all, building of walls is something associated more with clueless Trump in his own policy recommendation for dealing with Mexico. I don’t think we need to adopt that approach. I believe in a highly mechanised, mobile border guard. Originally, while you are training them, units could be taken from the immigration, customs, mobile police, but the border guard would be a new command to be established for security reasons all across our borders. Of course, it would use electronic surveillance, helicopters equipped with highly mobile troop carriers, because it is a very long border we are talking about, from Badagry all the way to Sokoto, from Sokoto all the way to Maiduguri, and from Maiduguri all the way down to the Bakassi Peninsula. Even if we don’t accept that proposal now, in future we would continue to be confronted with it. It is an economic necessity, it is a security necessity. So it is a question of adopting the accurate strategic doctrine to deal with the issue.
How can Nigeria effectively secure itself under the current world economic and political order?
I think that we should seize the opportunity of the United States under Trump to re-evaluate the economic agreements we have signed over the years. Since 1960 there is no economic agreement that we did not gladly sign, irrespective of whether it is in our interest or not. We bought into this world view that says any multinational agreement is good for Nigeria simply because the rest of the world said so.
I think the Buhari administration should set up a task force. There are enough retired ambassadors now and highly respected retired civil servants as well as economists. He should empower a task force to review all the economic agreements we have signed since 1960 – or if he likes, all agreements, whether economic, judicial or whatever that we have signed since 1960. They should examine them and re-evaluate our continued participation in these economic agreements. They are not in our national interest. They have allowed industrial goods to be dumped in Nigeria, while we have not had any industrial goods to export. I think a lot of the agreements we have signed, especially with the European Union, have been ill-advised.
And I’m not a believer in the International Criminal Court the way it has been operating. If Trump had been a Nigerian politician or a Ugandan politician, the ICC would have been screaming by now that they would put him on trial for hate speeches because of the kind of speeches he made during the America election. But there is no sign at all of any distress coming out of the ICC. The ICC is operating with too many different standards and I really believe that we should re-evaluate our membership of it.
Are there other things you may want to tell Nigerians?
In my convocation lecture at the University of Ibadan, I pointed out that the present administration is missing an opportunity to bring sanity into the way and manner funds are spent at the state level. Yes, we are running a federation and, therefore, money is left to the states to determine how they spend it. But under this economic emergency, when the federal government is giving money to the states, what they call bailout money, I think it gives the federal government an opportunity to lay down conditionalities that states should sign up to if they want to be bailed out.
A situation where the federal government gives them money to either finish building roads and then a state government decides to appoint 50 special advisers or special assistants and use that money to pay them, or a situation where civil servants have not been paid for six to nine months and the federal government says in order to alleviate suffering in the land, here are bailout funds to be used to pay salaries, and a government diverts this money to build airports, which are unbudgeted for. I think the federal government is carrying part of the blame for not tackling this reckless expenditure syndrome in the country. I want to use this opportunity to repeat that my call.
This money that the federal government is giving out, at least under the present arrangement, belongs to the federal government. It is like when you go to the World Bank to borrow money, it just doesn’t dash you and ask you to go and spend it any way you like. So I think the federal government should use the opportunity of giving these bailout funds to lay down conditionalities that would sanitise the spending of funds. Of course, it also means that the federal government has to discipline itself in the ways it spends money at the federal level.