By Muyiwa Adeyemi
Professor Toyin Falola, one of Nigeria’s foremost Historians and currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin, United States (US), dissects various challenges confronting Nigeria and urges Nigerians to stop politicians from messing up their lives.
Nigeria just celebrated 58 years of independence and following the trajectory of its history since then, would you say we have got a country of our dream?
The answer is very clear. Abuja and many Nigerians agree that we have not got a country of our dream. The reason why they say that is that, firstly, the development challenges are too many and you see these challenges on bad roads, bad landscape, ugly environment, etc.
The second is the rising poverty, which is so bad that we are now rated as one of the poorest countries in the world, not just in Africa. The ordinary human beings are unable to feed themselves and send their children to school. It is very disappointing!
Third is the inability to create a middle- class with little contentment. They are not saying they want to be wealthy; they are just saying that their parents have sent them to school and they have done everything society expected of them to do.
You asked them to obey rules, they obeyed rules, you asked them to study hard, they did that and collected degrees, and a day after convocation ceremony, no job is waiting for them. Even those with jobs, you can divide them into clusters; those that are badly paid and the pay does not mean anything.
What do you want somebody to do with N18, 000 per month in a place like Lagos? It does not even cover his transportation. What do you want somebody with Master’s degree collecting N60, 000 a month to do? It cannot buy him/her a car; he/she cannot rent a decent apartment or fulfill middle-class aspiration.
Then you have the fourth issue- sheer political mismanagement by political leaders. We have complained about the military regime, we struggle to get rid of them, but nobody thought democracy would turn out to be like this, in which politicians have become crooks. It is pathetic that the dream of a better Nigeria has not been achieved.
Another general elections hold next year, do you see any ray of hope in the array of presidential candidates from various parties jostling to govern Nigeria?
It is normal for people to have ambition, so ambition is not the issue here. The core issue is what politicians do with power, which is to convert politics into business, business in the sense that they use that power for the purposes of stealing money.
You have constitutions and conventions that are not being fulfilled and practiced. You have a governor that is an emperor, a president is an emperor, and all of them are using their power to the maximum to benefit their supporters and fellow politicians and to punish those who are against them.
Basically, they are not using power for development purposes; I think these set of politicians are not for development.
What is the hope for Nigeria?
We can do what is called a bottom-top approach, in which millions of Nigerians will say enough is enough, begin to organise and say the culture of politics is not working (by culture of politics, I mean it is basically for corruption) and begin to mobilise for change.
We may have to review the entire structure of this democracy. We cannot continue to maintain hundreds of hundreds of people in politics- the senators, members of the House of Representatives, etc. We cannot continue to use money meant for development on this people.
Do you think Nigerians are ready to take their destiny into their hands by fighting for the real change you describe as bottom-top approach?
People always wonder about that and I always remind them that nobody told former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, the day they were to protest. Former president of Tunisia was not told before they protested against him. Somebody got frustrated and burnt herself on the street and millions of people followed.
For revolution to happen, they won’t give you advance notice. The conditions are just there. It is like the conditions we have now that people are not happy and not complaining. Sometimes, it takes a small incident to lead into a great conflagration.
So, whether it is Othman Dan Fodio’s Jihad of 1804 or the Nigerian civil war or the crisis in the Niger Delta, all these things are there. Remember Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), you remember Kanu. The revolution will start when nobody expects it. It is the condition that creates protest or revolution.
Government and the Labour movement have been negotiating a new minimum wage for some time now. To have a better society, should we be talking of a minimum wage or living wage?
Let us take it from other societies, like Switzerland, Japan and the US. The thing is that if you lay good infrastructure, it reduces the challenges individuals face.
Take a car, for instance, they do it in a way that if the roads are good and you service it regularly, it lasts over 20 years. In the average life-span of every people, I don’t think you drive more than three cars. I am not talking about people whose passion is cars and who see cars as a toy.
In developed places, it is not that the salaries are high. I live in one of the richest states in America, where salaries are not high, but infrastructures are good. The rate they charge you for banking system is very low. If you want to buy a house or build one, you will pay back the loan they give in 30 years and the interest is about 2.5 per cent. Those are the things that make society work, which means you can easily get a loan to buy a car and house.
Somebody with a degree will have a house, because you have access to a loan you pay over 30 years. If you give people in Ibadan that option, two-thirds of the population will be living in their own houses. The reason Nigerians cannot take such loan is that you have to pay back in four years at about 40 per cent interest.
You know they have banished hunger in the Western society. I mean food is in excess that nobody can say he/she is hungry. How much do they sell a whole chicken in New York? How much do they sell rice, vegetables? That abundance of food, which is not expensive, combined with good infrastructure and ability to access loan at cheaper interest rate, are the things that cushion and make lives of individuals easier.
In Nigeria, irrespective of what you pay them, if the roads are not good and the food is expensive, that money is not going to do a lot.
In the university where I teach, if your salary is not enough, if it is low, you don’t pay school fees, because they are able to relate parity for fee paying to the income of the parent. The person will say he will not go to the university in the US will not tie his reason to money, it could be tied to interest, and that is why people don’t even need their parents to collect degrees, because they have access to educational loan. They give you opportunity to send yourself to school.
There is a proposal to have such educational loan in Nigeria, which is being kicked against?
They did it before in the 1970s and they did not have the mechanism to collect back the money.
Secondly, who is going to collect the loan when he is not sure of getting a job after collecting degree? Loans are supposed to be revolving, if not, it will crash. For such loan to make sense, there must be job waiting for whoever collected such at the end of his/her degree, which will provide him/her the opportunity to pay back. If they give a son a loan to go to the university and he came out without a job, will you ask the father to repay the loan?
So, I can understand the criticism, because during the regime of Gen Yakubu Gowon, we got educational loan, some of us paid back, but many did not.
Why are things not working in Nigeria as being experienced elsewhere?
It is because of the quality of management of the nation, inability to build on past achievements and corruption. What corruption does is that it sets society back.
If they pay a contractor to do a road that can last 20 years and whoever pays the contractor has taken 50 per cent of the money, the contractor will say, the guy who took 50 per cent from me has made away with the profit and will want to use the remaining 50 per cent and also make a profit. So, he/she will do a shoddy job. Corruption undermines efficiency and trust and the overall outcome is that nothing is going to work.
It appears as if the followers are now part of this corruption. If you collect money to vote, you have already collected your share of development and shouldn’t complain anymore. So, if you are in Ekiti State and they have given you N3, 000 to vote, what is it that you would complain about the governor, when you have collected your ‘dividend’ in advance?
The followers have to also rethink this process. I know they are hungry, but they must be resolute and organise themselves to demand for their rights.
In the 1960s, when the government increased taxes, the villagers complained that they had been paying taxes and asked ‘where is the school in our village, where is the clinic, no pipe-borne water.’ Then they asked what they were benefitting from the money being collecting from them and they rebelled for three years and began to fight the Police and the government was forced to abolish taxes.
But we must bear in mind that the main resource of Nigeria, oil, resides in one corner of the country. The majority ethnic groups that govern the country do not have oil and they use the oil from the minority to govern the country. How many states contribute to the development? How many of the states generate internal revenue?
What is the contribution of Ekiti, Gombe states, etc, to the national revenues? We have Lagos State that has capacity to generate revenue, we have Rivers and other oil-producing states, the rest depend on federal revenue. And when they collect this federal revenue, do you know what politicians do with it? They take their own first and while distributing the rest of the revenue, their priorities are very faulty. You have a state governor who can send people on pilgrimage complaining that there is no money for borehole.
Let me say this to Nigerians: Politicians will continue to mess up their lives; our people should rise up to mess up the politicians.
What is your position on restructuring?
You have to do fiscal restructuring. You have to give more money to where that money is produced.
We also need to do political restructuring, in which the regional zones will be merged to generate regional development.
We have to do restructuring in terms of distribution of power, so that power is not excessively concentrated in one segment of the country.
The bottom line and the most effective restructuring is the ability of each zone, each community in the country to have the capacity to govern itself, not in terms of all the powers, but in terms of some semi-autonomy. This is not new in history.
We borrowed federalism from other places. In the US, for instance, states have their powers and communities have their powers. The President of the US cannot come to your house, as his power does not extend there. He is not in charge of tarring the road in front of my house. That power belongs to what you call the local government. There are federal highways, there are state roads and there are community roads, all independent of one another.
On the talk of the over-centralisation of power, if the University of Ibadan (UI) thinks there are courses or departments it can create that can provide jobs for Yoruba people in the Southwest or even in Ibadan, why do they need to go to Abuja, to the National University Commission (NUC), to get approval and authorisation?
So, if the number one problem in Ibadan is collection of refuse and expanding the base of slums, if you buy a land in Ibadan now and two years later it becomes a slum, why can’t UI say part of what it is going to do is urban renewal, create degrees in it, link university to the streets and convert the refuse into energy. Under the current arrangement, for them to do that, they have to go to Abuja for approval. That is wrong.
Many have argued that Nigerian universities are not responding well to societal needs. For instance, UI will clock 70 in November this year and many often ask how many research works came out of that premier university that have shaped or solved some of our challenges?
I want people to remember that Nigeria has many research institutes, on cocoa, palm oil, groundnuts, etc. We can divide challenges here into many phases. What is the level of funding? Research is very expensive, especially in the area of science, medicine and engineering. What is the ability to convert those research findings into public use?
You will be surprised that there are good research findings at NISER, which appear on people’s profile and got them promotions, but the results are not being translated into projects. It is not the work of the researcher to use the product of the research, so there must be a synergy among the industries, entrepreneurs and the university. That is how it is being done in every part of the world. It is not the job of an agronomist at the UI that has produced a major research to translate it; he has finished his own work.
Don’t we have agencies that market these research findings to the end users?
That is the missing link. The professor publishes his/her findings, otherwise, they will not promote him/her. His/her result has already been published, so there must be an agency to connect it with the end-users. The universities are not industries where things work, that synergy will take the product to the industries and manufacturers.
Professors will patent their results. I am not an entrepreneur, I can write a book, but I don’t know how to sell books. You cannot say ‘Falola, you have written a good book and why are you not implementing polices therein?’ We have professors who generate ideas and we have policy makers who turn the ideas into policies and we have bureaucrats and politicians who covert those ideas into use.
There has been a controversy in Yoruba land in recent times about the pre-Oduduwa history of the race, and it has been argued that very little work was done by academic historians about this. As a Yoruba elder, would you say Historians are guilty of this allegation?
Well, I won’t use the world guilt; I would say we should separate history from the politics of history or we should separate mythology from the politics of mythology. The Yoruba will say Ejo laako, enikan o ki nko ija, meaning, you don’t learn how to fight, but how to tell your story.
There is also a difference among event, history and politics of memory. If I tell you a Moremi story, that is a story, that is Moremi mythology and there is a way Historians will take that mythology and narrative and analyse them. They may say they are analysing them in terms of gender history or in terms of the politics of the gender. And for the politicians, they are interested in the politics of the mythology and the politics of the history and weave them in a manner that suits them.
For many years, on Ife side, Oyo side, Benin side, they were able to establish a link between Ife and Benin people and that Ife was able to instigate the beginning of dynasties among the Edo people and that Ife sent a prince there and Benin people learnt the act of kingship from the Yoruba people.
There are many Benin local Historians that wrote books to affirm this, but in the recent times, a new king came in Benin and said ‘we don’t want this kind of story, let us reverse the story and say it was the Benin people who taught Ife people about kingship.’ That is politics. So, societies do operate the way in which they take these mythologies and turn them into politics.
It is not that Historians have not done serious works on pre-Oduduwa era in Yorubaland, as a matter of fact, Prof Akinjogun, many years ago, wrote an essay on this pre-Oduduwa era, which was not published in Japan, but in Ife and is available. Sometimes, people may be lazy in reading those books.
You are a chief in Ibadan, what is your opinion on the new monarchs recently created by the government and the reluctance of Olubadan to accept and recognise these new 21 Obas?
You could see that there is a consensus around this that it is not necessary. If you are on many of the social media, you will see how the public reacted by turning it into jokes, such as Elewon of Agodi, Oni UI of UI, Oniringroad of Ringroad, Alabe gather of Gather.
When members of the public turn things into a joke, the governor must know that people are not in support of what they are doing. More seriously, have we been talking of the reforming of the institution? Yes, we did.
A prominent and well-respected Ibadan chief, a former Registrar of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) and former Head of Service of Oyo State, Chief Akinyele, wrote a book on how to reform this system. A former presidential candidate that was assassinated many years ago, who himself would have been a king, Chief Lai Balogun, also wrote on this.
The reforms people are seeking is how somebody younger, say in his 60s or 50s, can rise to become the Olubadan. That was the conversation we were all having. How the number of the lines can be reduced, so that we can produce a modernising king. That was the conversation everybody was expecting and we had even started talking to the palace.
As a chief, I am involved, to ensure that a connection with resources, with connection to the development network emerges. And if that is not possible, can the palace allow a reform for a development-oriented structure to even arise, talking about refuse collection, preventing slums, etc, not as government, but with capacity to feed those in power?
Now, you have a governor who is interested in his own agenda and his friends also have their own agenda. They are politicians. I hope there will be a new governor that understands that people are not happy with this and will have the ability to present better facts to the people and rethink many of these things.
But you know, when we people enjoy privileges, wearing their crowns and beads, they won’t yield it.
In the last one month, you have received about four awards from universities in Nigeria. Why are these awards coming in torrents now?
They have always been giving me awards. Maybe you just have not been noticing it.
How many awards have you received so far?
So many! I don’t have to be talking about this. Others should be talking about this. I cannot be advertising myself.
How do you unwind?
We were together yesterday evening and you saw me in the midst of my colleagues at UI taking one or two bottles.