A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and presidential candidate of the African Democratic Congress in the 2019 elections, Dr Obadiah Mailafia, speaks on the activities of the apex bank and his concerns about the state of the nation, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA
You contested the last presidential election and despite the good manifesto you had you didn’t win, why do you think you lost that election?
I supposedly came fourth in the overall presidential election. Not a bad run, if you asked me! We were hamstrung by money and logistics. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support I received from youths at every corner of the country. Even in Katsina, the President’s home state, volunteers opened three campaign offices for me at their own expense. In Yorubaland, Igboland, Borno and the Middle Belt, support for our cause was amazing. The youth felt my heartbeats – my love for them and for our country. Unfortunately, the people that promised us financial support turned to Atiku (Abubakar) and the Peoples Democratic Party in the very last minutes. They said they knew I was the best new leader to usher in the new Nigeria of our dreams but that they needed someone like Atiku to fight President Muhammadu Buhari to the finish. They wanted to see a cock fight between two Fulani men. When I joined the African Democratic Congress, I was made to believe that a transparent process would produce a consensus candidate for the 38 political parties under the Coalition of United Political Parties, but the process was not as transparent as promised. I came second to Atiku Abubakar out of the 38 candidates. All these factors, together with other logistical and financial encumbrances, meant that I couldn’t run the marathon of my life. Everybody knows that the elections were shamelessly rigged. In appointing Mahmood Yakubu as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, President Buhari violated a major constitutional convention that says an incumbent president should appoint the electoral umpire from outside his own geopolitical area. It is shameful and sad. Mahmood, an old schoolmate of mine, has been a resounding disappointment.
Some people would think you said that because you lost, could you expatiate on that?
The 2019 elections, in my opinion, were the worst ever in the history of our country. Quote me on that one! The elections were shamelessly rigged. Millions of our people were technically disenfranchised. It started even from the voter registration process and the actual conduct of the elections themselves left much to be desired. The people concerned know themselves and they know that they cannot sleep with a clean conscience before God Almighty who is the judge of the living and the dead. Heaven knows, I am not expressing my disappointment because of any sour grapes. I have closely studied the biographies and political trajectories of great men such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. It took them years of trials and tribulations before they made it in the political arena, so I know that in politics you lose some, you win some. I decided to go into politics in the first place because of total outrage over the untold miseries facing our benighted people. I am not in it for money or vainglory. Win or lose, I am at peace with my conscience. A former INEC Chairman, Professor Eme Awa, was my mentor. I know how great and patriotic some of these people were. The dissimulation, double-face, prevarication and lack of transparency associated with the INEC of today is stinking, disgusting and shameful.
Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai, said recently that Nigeria should do away with zoning arrangement for elections into the office of the President. What do you make of that opinion?
The 1999 constitution does not require ‘zoning’ as such. However, I believe that evolving constitutional conventions and norms lead us ineluctably in that direction. Governor Nasir el-Rufai is evidently a man of ambition, and often susceptible to grand self delusions of the order of Bonaparte. Obasanjo in his memoirs describes him (el-Rufai) as someone who is loyal only to himself. At a dinner lecture in Lagos recently, he fired salvoes at the lion of Bourdillon, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The latter, we all concede, has this extraordinary clairvoyance and percipience for identifying talents and mentoring them for leadership. But Jagaban Borgu has been abjectly naïve. He does not know that they just want to use him and crush him. He would be wise to be wary of those whose traditions of rulership allows them to give their daughter to you in marriage only for the sole purpose of finding out your innermost weaknesses, the better to destroy you!
Some people have said it is wrong for Governor El-Rufai to say that now after his region has benefited from the same zoning arrangement for eight years, but he said competence should come first. Do you think he was right after all or you sense some mischief?
El-Rufai has disappointed some of us who believed he has the making of a national leader. Unfortunately, his record in Kaduna does not speak well for him. He has turned out to be a petty-minded, mean-spirited and bigoted little charlatan whose lack of civility can be shocking. Often prone to atrocious gaffes, he would be a worse calamity than PMB, if, in the unlikely event of a feat of collective absent-mindedness, the Nigerian people allow him to become President, he would be like a bull in their china shop. Whether they like it or not, power must change hands in 2023. Some people are not smart enough to know that our country is right now on the verge of disintegration. Our best hope is to find a moderate and balanced patriotic technocrat from the Middle Belt who can heal our wounds and take charge come 2023.
But people are saying the south east should be allowed at this time, even though some people in the south-west feel their region also deserve it.
Ordinarily, we shouldn’t be fixated about where the president comes from, so long as the person is an outstanding leader and patriot. Our Ndigbo brethren have rightfully been angered by what is increasingly looking like a national conspiracy to keep them permanently out of power. However, I would plead with them to look at the bigger picture. Given all the frayed nerves and the real prospects of national disintegration, our best hope is to get a moderate technocrat from the Middle Belt whom northern youths will not distrust and the rest of the country will see to be an acceptable compromise. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. The Middle Belt is the bridge that links North and South.
You praised Asiwaju Tinubu for his special gifts yet you said he is abjectly naive. He is rumoured to have presidential ambition come 2023. Do you think the north won’t support him to be President if he shows interest, given the role he played in the emergence of the APC and President Buhari?
Yes, I have my reasons for saying that Jagaban Borgu is rather naïve. He seems not to understand the kind of political animals he is dealing with. He doesn’t realise that the game-plan is to exploit to the fullest his political and financial capital and to forebear with him until such a time as they are in a position to run him aground. He is the last to know that the North will never hand-over power to him. The ancient Yoruba civilisation is anchored on monarchical republicanism. The Oyo Mesi constitutional council of yesteryears could demand that an Oba commit suicide if he fell below the people’s expectations. Loyalty, respect, honour and principles are the defining features of Yoruba leadership traditions. The northern power system, by contrast, is rooted in feudalism, taqiyya and dissimulation. In the name of friendship, they will hand-over to you a colourful long rope and you will happily go to the gallows singing their praise! Tinubu has, of course, a legitimate right to aspire to the high magistracy of our federal republic. He has paid his dues. But his best bet is to realign with the Middle Belt and the South. The North will not relinquish power any time soon.
Why do you say that?
They operate a different cosmological worldview and mindset from the rest of us. They are trying to remake our country in the image of the Caliphate. They willingly sacrifice social progress at the altar of ambition, in the Machiavellian understanding that hungry, desperate people at point zero would be too broken to ever raise their miserable heads. They have installed their people in all the key security and strategic departments of government. Meanwhile they are implicitly allowing murderous hordes from neighbouring countries to come and take over our ancestral lands by force of arms. And they are ruthlessly imposing total hegemony over culture, mass media, public administration and the commanding heights of the economy. They govern by fear and are willing to deploy the cloven hoofs of history to plunge our country into another civil war. Trust me, I am not an alarmist. I have been a faithful student of political theory from Plato to NATO. But we can never be afraid of them, because they can only kill the body. Rather, we should be afraid of the One who can kill both the body and the spirit. We know that they will surely fail, because our God is a consuming fire. Bola Tinubu understands this evil agenda, but it seems he is willing to sacrifice the destiny of his people at the altar of personal ambition.
The President inaugurated his ministers on Wednesday, but from available indices, where do you see Nigeria in 2023?
I wish I could offer you some hope. Unfortunately, the future looks rather bleak; made hopeless by a government that cannot provide guidance or collective purpose to 200 million people. How I wish there was something to celebrate! Unfortunately, there isn’t. Some of the new ministerial appointees have allegedly stolen billions of public funds and have no business heading any ministry or department of government. Also, President Buhari shocked the world by announcing the de facto handing-over of his core executive functions to his Chief of Staff; effectively creating a prime ministerial role that does not exist in our constitutional order. It was a personal humiliation for Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo who sat there staring. So, we should expect more of the same. And more of the same means poor leadership, lack of guidance and direction and weak growth at a pace of less than two per cent. This also means deepening poverty and unemployment, given that our demographic growth is 3.2 per cent annually. Ahead of us, to echo German sociologist Max Weber, is not the bliss of summer, but an icy and dark winter.
About a week ago, you said the decision of the Central Bank of Nigeria to implement the President’s directive to stop providing forex to food importers showed that the apex bank had been captured politically. Do you imply that the apex bank has a choice not to implement the President’s order?
I think I have been quoted out of context. What I said in my interview on Channels TV is that it seems the presidential directive was based on a whim rather than a proper policy study. I was concerned not so much with the content as with the methodology. The CBN is supposedly an autonomous institution under the CBN Act 2007. But I am also experienced enough to know that there is only one government and the apex bank is a part and parcel of that government. Autonomy is never a licence to behave like a republic within a republic. Therefore, the CBN is expected to work closely with the government and serve as its banker and loyal adviser. It must be in a position to raise issues of policy differences with the executive when it feels very strongly that public interest is at stake. It should be in a position to discountenance presidential orders that are patently prejudicial to the public good or the long-term prosperity of the country. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the directive per se. No one will seriously disagree on the need to promote food security. My concern is mainly on how we go about such decisions.
You also said the apex bank has lost its professionalism and autonomy, hence its willingness to pander to the whims of the political class, could you expatiate on that?
I don’t like breathing down the necks of former colleagues who have to work often under difficult conditions. But some of the staff complain that discipline is breaking down. The esprit de corps that characterised the CBN that we knew is no longer there. Some complain that children of ‘big people’ have preferment in terms of recruitment. This is just one dimension of the problem. The other is the prevalence of a multiple exchange rate regime, which only spurs corruption and rent-seeking behaviour. There seems to be too much coziness with the cowboys that run some of the banks. The influence of vested interests cannot totally be dismissed. You see, if Nigerians actually knew how the CBN Act 2007 came into being there would be a riot. It emerged as the product of one man’s overweening megalomaniac ambition to carve out an empire for himself. The bill never went through the standard stages that we associate with parliamentary legislation. The promoters of the bill waited until the eve of the change of government towards the end of May 2007 to ambush outgoing legislators, many of whom had lost their seats. They were asked to sign, and they acquiesced, with Ghana-Must-Go bags in tow. According to an Igbo proverb, when the madman walking down the road was told that his house is on fire, he replied nonchalantly that the matter was behind him! After the bill was passed, the final copy was taken to the outgoing President Obasanjo in Ota farm for his assent. Left to me, there are a few clauses that have to be added to ensure greater oversights and greater public accountability.
Can the CBN exercise its professionalism and autonomy without being at loggerheads with the executive?
In sane times, this question should not arise. During the Obasanjo years, his favourites were not the ‘yes-men’ but those who had the guts to disagree with him and to publicly defend their corner. The man had his own shortcomings, no doubt, but he was a man who was amenable to reason. Ask the former members of his Economic Team: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nasir el-Rufai, Nuhu Ribadu, Oby Ezekwesili and Chukwuma Soludo. Baba (Obasanjo) relished a good intellectual debate. He would of course bellow threateningly like the marine commander that he formerly was. After all the blustering, he would smile while deferring to superior logic and superior intellect. A good president will respect a (CBN) governor who stands up to him based on economic reason and patriotism. Some of us are dismayed by the fawning, snivelling, sycophancy we see in the corridors of power these days – as if we are being ruled by a Sultanate Caliph rather than an elected president in a secular democracy. Nigeria has truly fallen from grace!
What kind of CBN would you have loved to have?
I would like to see a central monetary authority that is world-class and staffed by the very best talents available in this country. This country does not have an economic administration as obtained in the civilised democracies. The CBN has an opportunity to fill that lacuna. Our CBN should be among the top 10 in the world in terms of quality and excellence. We have what it takes to take charge of the commanding heights and to build a prosperous industrial-technological state. We have to think in deep and original ways on how to build a prosperous post-oil diversified industrial economy. There is now the talk about a single West African currency in the near future. We do not know when and if a single currency would materialise. We have to go ahead and imagine our naira as one of the international trading currencies of the 21st century. I would like to see a more accountable and a more transparent central bank; a developmental institution at the forefront of Nigeria’s structural transformation; watching over well run commercial banks and an efficient financial system in tune with the long-term goals of collective welfare.
Nigeria has not had a favourable exchange rate in her recent history, why has it been difficult to have a good rate?
Exchange rate movements are determined by several factors: macroeconomic growth, financial fundamentals such as interest rates, external debt, volume of foreign reserves, budget deficits and inflation. Equally important are factors such as level of participation in international trade, rational expectations, geopolitical uncertainty, market sentiments and general confidence that local and foreign investors feel about the long-term prospects of the economy. People often overlook the fact that policy credibility is crucial. If people feel confident that the central monetary authorities know what they are doing, the impact is often salutary. Any shifts in these variables can affect the exchange rate favourably or unfavourably. When you apply all these variables to the Nigerian context you can see why the naira has fared so badly.
What are the urgent measures for us to have a favourable exchange rate?
Water will always find its level. We cannot expect to mismanage our economy and expect a stable currency at the same time. A stronger naira will only emerge when we take bold steps to deepen economic reforms, stabilise the macro-economy, bring down inflation, boost international trade and enhance the overall fundamentals within a stable economic and political system.
Do you see that happening during this tenure?
I am afraid the omens are not looking particularly propitious. The stock market has recently lost something like 20 per cent of its total market capitalisation due to geopolitical uncertainty, rational expectation problems, governmental indecision and prevarication and the sheer loss of confidence. Foreign investors have fled in droves. Ghana, with an economy smaller than Lagos, has been able to attract more capital inflows than Nigeria. You may not have noticed that the CBN quietly and discretely changed the official rate from N305/$1 to N320/$1. Growth this year is forecast to be only 1.9 per cent, and with a worsening public debt of N24.4tn, the economic fundamentals are not looking very bright. This is likely to reflect in some form of further devaluation of the naira.
You said recently that “it’s like we have gone back to the military days when the military would literally bring trucks to the Mint and order printing of fresh mints (currencies), load them into the trailers and drive off with them,” do you think the CBN has been hijacked by any cabal?
I wouldn’t go so far as saying CBN is totally “hijacked”. But it does exhibit some of the behavioural symptoms associated with political-regulatory capture, defined as, “a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating”.
At last, the Federal Government sold 21 per cent of its equity in the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company to the CBN, how do you feel about that?
Yes, we learnt that in February this year the Federal Government sold 21 per cent of its Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company shares valued at N17bn to the CBN, the majority shareholder and I think it’s a good thing. A foreign currency printing company, De la Rue, owns 0.87 per cent of the shares. I suppose the government wants to leave the CBN to be fully in charge of the business of printing our currency. What we would like to see is the application of the Japanese management culture of Kaizen, (continuous improvement). The printing and minting of a country’s legal tender currency is a serious business. The British considered it so supremely important that they recruited the most famous scientist of the eighteenth century, Sir Isaac Newton, to be Master of the Mint. I have visited several mints across the world. Some of them have laboratories that would rival those of scientific establishments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University. The science of holography is an important area in physics whereby currencies can be printed with three-dimensional security features that are not ordinarily visible. I once raised an alarm about the volume of fake currency in circulation in our country. Then as now, I stand by my words. Was it V. I. Lenin who said that whoever controls the printing of your currency is your slave-master? We need the highest professionalism in the Mint as well as continuous improvement to ensure that the integrity of our legal tender currency is secure and protected. We must also double-up on security because there have been one or two very serious security lapses in the past.
The NSPMC now has the exclusive right to print e-passports instead of importing booklets from foreign countries, are you worried that other governments couldn’t do that before now?
I think it is a welcome development that we have taken steps to domesticate the production and printing of our own national passport. I once came across a Brazilian in Europe with a Nigerian passport. This person confessed to me that they had never been to Nigeria and have no connections whatsoever with our country. The passport looked genuine in every material particular, but it was illegally issued. This is the risk you incur when you entrust the printing of your national passport to a foreign contractor.
You were arrested in January over allegations of how a certain amount of money was spent when you were at the CBN, but you said your arrest was a witch-hunt. Has the issue been resolved now?
Honestly, one would prefer not to remember that ordeal. Thankfully, the matter is now resolved. It is an irony of fate that the head of my tormentors, Okoi Obono-Obla, the then chairman of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Properties, is himself in trouble. Today, he is facing serious corruption charges. I feel no schadenfreude for his miseries, only pity. Touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm, says the Lord!
When you said ordeal, were you maltreated?
Let me make it clear: I was never beaten or tortured whilst being questioned by the panel. My ordeal was emotional and mental. It was a shock to be dragged before a tribunal over an alleged fraud running into billions of dollars, when, as a presidential candidate we were looking for naira to print posters. The questioning was hostile and humiliating. At a point, I actually broke down. They invaded my home and confiscated my travel passport at precisely the week when I had bought tickets and booked hotels for a crucial trip abroad. I never waste a moment of my life. I am either reading, researching and writing or otherwise engaged in worthwhile business pursuits. Those people wasted my precious time for nothing. There are other things which I would prefer not to go into.