It’s absurd to believe Nigeria’ll gain anything under Biden — Soremekun – Punch Newspapers

The immediate past Vice Chancellor of Federal University Oye-Ekiti and international relations expert, Prof Kayode Soremekun, speaks to ALEXANDER OKERE and TOBI AWORINDE about Nigeria’s foreign policy and the change of leadership in the United States, among other sundry issues

You have just ended an eventful tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Federal University Oye-Ekiti. Can you share your experience with us?

I was the Vice Chancellor after Prof Chinedu Nebo, who was actually the pioneer VC and Prof Isaac Asuzu. Between them, they shared five-year tenure because Prof Nebo was appointed as the Minister of Power by President Goodluck Jonathan. Having said that, what really occurred was that I was only saddled with the mere pioneer status in view of what we had to do. When I got there, the place was almost like a desiccated landscape, and in saying this, I am not trying to put down any of my predecessors. They did their best under the circumstances because you would then come to appreciate that five years is really short. It would fly very fast.

Be that as it may, by the grace of God, we were able to achieve a lot in terms of raising the profile, status and stature of that university in various areas. For instance, in the area of students, we moved the student population from around 5,000 to around 24,000. What that means is we had to then begin to put in place facilities. I will talk about that later. In the process, we were able to expand the number of programmes for the university such that, initially, we were just offering the usual Liberal Arts programmes, but as I speak, we are now offering Pharmacy, Law, and Environmental Sciences, i.e. Architecture, Estate Management and Quantity Surveying.

When we wanted to start the Pharmacy programme, people felt that it would have been too much of a task for us. But by the grace of God, and with the help of my wife, who is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Lagos, we were able to put the Pharmacy programme in place. The unique thing is we are not just offering a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy, we are offering the latest curriculum in Pharmacy, which is called PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy). That is what we started with.

Similarly, we have raised our Information and Communication Technology profile to a level that all our various publics are so happy because ICT is also about the universities interfacing with the public. I was moved one day when one of the parents just wrote to me and said our ICT is seamless. That, for me, is a major achievement, simply because the history of our ICT system has a bit of drama in the sense that, when we started, we were not on the portal. We had no portal; we were on the Obafemi Awolowo University portal. We were virtually being colonised by the OAU ICT structure. But when I got there, we were able to hire somebody who, at a minimal cost, was able to put in place an authentic portal for us. We also increased the number of faculties which we met from four to 11. If you notice, I keep saying ‘we’ because I don’t want to hog all the credit.

You worked with a team…

Yes, I worked with a great team – the deans, the heads of department; the various supervisory bodies like the National Universities Commission, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board were also very helpful. As I mentioned, the Pharmacy programme was largely made possible by my wife, an associate professor of pharmacy; and her colleagues in Pharmacy like Dr Lanre Silva of UNILAG, a former Dean of Pharmacy there; and Dr (Tiwalade) Olugbade, a former Dean of Pharmacy in OAU. As I said, when we were about to start the Pharmacy programme, we were discouraged by the fact that it was seen as a Herculean task, but we have since been able to do it, such that we have moved the number of faculties from four to 11. In fact, the only thing that remains for the university to do there is a College of Medicine because we have a Faculty of Basic Medical Science there.

We also have been able to put in place a number of facilities. In fact, the facilities have grown in an exponential way. When I was leaving, we inaugurated around 74 completed projects which include laboratories, classrooms, lecture theatres, and sports facilities. This could not but be true because, as I said earlier, we moved from a demographic profile of 5,000 students to 24,000, which meant we had to put in place facilities for them. And this was made possible with the help of my colleagues and by the grace of God.

In a short span, our students have been winning prizes all over the place, nationally and globally. And they have been doing very well. At a point in time, FUOYE was rated 14th in the entire country and that’s a university that is just about to turn 10 years old. We also put in place, significantly enough, a School of Postgraduate Studies, and already, there’s a lot of postgraduate work going on. This is very important because, when you are just teaching undergraduates, what you are simply doing is transferring knowledge. But when you do postgraduate studies, you are then producing knowledge and there is a lot going on in that place.

The Nigerian university community has become a battleground of sorts for disenchanted unions competing to outdo one another in strikes. What is the way out?

What you just said is not really located in the Nigerian university system; it is also located in the health system, in the sense that there is a constant face-off between the Nigerian Medical Association and the Joint Health Sector Union. So, you have the same problem in the universities. Let me say this: the Academic Staff Union of Universities came on board as a vibrant union and made credible attempts to hold the feet of the government to the fire, in terms of its responsibilities. But in the process, there is also what you can call the unintended consequences of the intended action. ASUU, while playing its own credible game, in the process, invoked the consciences of the other unions.

I have thought a lot about this and my opinion is that we should have a standing committee that will be involved in mediation and conflict resolution between the university managements and the unions. This standing committee should be made up of pro-chancellors of the various universities; not all of them, because that would be too many. With this standing committee, once the alarm is beginning to sound, they should call the unions together and there should be a standing rule, which is ‘let us negotiate and while we are negotiating, don’t stop classes.’ Let’s face it, the university is a knowledge factory and when you stop and start, you are doing something to the quality of education. I think serious thought should be given to this because ASUU is no longer on strike but the question on everybody’s lips is, ‘when is the next strike?’ Right now, the other unions are on strike. So, this standing committee should act as a firefighting force to stem this problem possibly on a permanent basis. But in saying this, we also have to take on board the unions.

Let me give you an interesting example: My daughter went to resume her Master of Laws programme in York University, Canada, after doing her first degree, and when she got there, there was a kind of industrial action and the university said they should make sure they attended to the international students no matter what, and they did this. So, let us also put in place a mediation committee made up of pro-chancellors and the unions such that, when the alarm is beginning to sound, they can begin to negotiate. There might be other ideas out there, but let’s see how we can stop these incessant strikes by the unions. Why are the unions disenchanted? Possibly the compensation system is very low. This is the time to put in place this kind of committee that will begin to work on it.

People have complained about the un-employability of graduates produced by Nigerian universities in recent years. What do you think is responsible and how can this be redressed?

I don’t like all this street thinking by people. There is this notion that our graduates are unemployable. I said earlier on that, for a young university like ours, many of our graduates, as young as we are, have gone abroad to study and they fit in very well in those places. So, what are we saying about employability? Which jobs are you employing them into? In a cargo economy, which jobs are available? We have a lot of self-condemnation going around. Even abroad, the employers complain that when they employ fresh graduates, they have to train them such that they are skilled to be consistent with the requirement of the workplace. So, it is not just in Nigeria, but as I said, we are prone to self-condemnation and in the process, we lose sight of the larger picture. If a university like ours that is going to be 10 years old would send our students abroad and they do well, get distinctions and fit in very well, then imagine what will happen to graduates of UNILAG, University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. So, let us stop the whole idea of putting ourselves down.

They say they are unemployable. In which economy are you employing them? An economy which itself lacks a productive basis. What are you employing them for? All I am saying, therefore, is that, as it is now, we have a very rudimentary economy. Are you aware that Nigeria has close to no pharmaceutical industry, even though we have some visible names claiming to be pharmaceutical (manufacturers)? They are not. What they put together, they import galenicals, buy products from the petrochemical industry, put water and say they are producing drugs. So, when you produce a pharmacist in Nigeria, what are you employing that kind of person for? Let’s look at the two sides of the prism. That rudimentary economy itself is basically a non-economy, as exemplified by what I have said about the pharmaceutical industry.

With the recent change of leadership in the United States, many Nigerians have expressed a positive attitude to Nigeria-US relations. As an international relations expert, which areas do you think Nigeria will benefit the most under President Joe Biden?

Let me begin by being very visceral and naked with my language here. It is a load of nonsense to believe that Nigeria stands to gain anything under the Biden presidency. This is because international relations really does not work that way and a lot of people portray a lot of ignorance about foreign policy dynamics in Washington. Let me state what is possibly not obvious to most Nigerians, which is that the US, as presently structured, is important to us, Nigeria, but we are not important to them. The US foreign policy machine runs on a system of priorities and Africa is at the bottom of the pool. To that extent, we don’t count much to the US foreign policy calculations, although we are deluded on this end to think that we count. We do not, I am sorry to say.

In the US foreign policy calculations, what matters are platforms like Europe; the Middle East; Russia; Latin America, which is in their backyard, so to say; Asia; and then Africa. What I am saying here also has to do with the internal dynamics of the US domestic politics, in which the blacks are still striving to attain full citizenship in that country. To that extent, as I said, we do not count for much. So, it is when you are chloroformed that you begin to say Nigeria stands to gain anything from a Biden presidency.

Do you think the situation was the same during the era of former President Donald Trump?

During the Trump era, he was more open about what he thinks about Nigeria and Africa. To that extent, I think, at the risk of sounding perverse, the Trump era, if we were to learn the right lessons from that era, showed us our nakedness. He was calling us names which were very uncomplimentary. But do those uncomplimentary names reflect the reality of Nigeria? Let me give you a painful example: Are you aware of the fact that when Nigerian diplomats are posted to Washington,  when they are about to return from the tour of duty, they leave their families behind, especially their children? What does that say about Nigeria? Now, look at the converse; will an American diplomat, after the end of his tour of duty, leave his family behind here? That says a lot about what Trump is saying. I am not saying I agree with him; what I am saying, however, is that he has shown us a mirror and what we can see there is ugliness. What are we doing about it?

Let me use a very simple example: How many Lagosians have access to potable water? We have boreholes all over the place with the attendant environmental consequences. It’s a pity that the way the visa game is being played is being used as a primitive measure against Nigerians and that is because our own house is not in order. Once you lack a robust domestic base, don’t begin to look to anybody there and ask, ‘What do we stand to gain from a Biden presidency?’ Chances are that Biden does not even know the capital of Nigeria, in case you don’t know because we do not count much in Washington’s foreign policy calculations. So, let’s stop all this about what we stand to gain.

Some might argue that the US’ support of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy for Director General of the World Trade Organisation could be counted as a gain for Nigeria. Do you see it that way?

Again, there are two levels in diplomacy. You have the cosmetic dimension and you have the content dimension. What is the gain there for us? I am very happy for Dr Okonjo-Iweala, by the way; I am very happy about the visibility. But do people really know what the WTO stands for? What was in place before the WTO? The WTO is simply a platform where the ‘status quo forces’ vie for influence and privileges in the international community in the area of trade, and Nigeria is not part of that ‘status quo profile.’ When you talk of international trade, you are talking of three entities: the United States, Japan and Europe. And between them, they account for 90 per cent of world trade. So, please, let us go beyond cosmetics to focus on substance. I am happy for the woman; she is highly qualified. She merits the job, but what does the WTO stand for?

Let me go further by saying the WTO is a successor body to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was also a major playground for the ‘status quo forces.’ It was the failure of GATT that gave rise to the WTO. So, we should be careful about being euphoric; we are merely being euphoric about some of these things.

So, what challenges are before her as the WTO DG?

The challenge before her is that she would have to contain the gladiators of international trade – and Nigeria is not one of them. They are forever fighting among themselves. But since she is not just a Nigerian, but also a Nigerian-American, she is one of them and one of us; she will know what to do. What I am saying, therefore, is that Nigeria is a peripheral player in world trade, and to that extent, she is a peripheral player in the WTO. So, we should stop all this euphoria about what we stand to gain from the WTO and what it means for us. It means a lot to the women – I am happy for her. It means a lot for us in terms of visibility.

Let me give you an example: Several years ago, a Nigerian, (the late) Rilwanu Lukman, was appointed as the president of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and I wrote a piece then titled, ‘Lukman and OPEC’s cosmetic garb.’ What does that mean? The main players in OPEC then were all the low absorber countries, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. They are low absorbers because they have a low population and very high reserves, compared to Nigeria with a high population and low reserves. We should, as much as possible, separate the style of international politics from its substance. There’s a lot to be said for style, as far as Okonjo-Iweala is concerned, but in terms of the substance, it means virtually nothing for Nigeria. In case you don’t know, there’s another body on trial which was set up to cater for the interests of developing countries and that is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. That is more relevant to our needs and aspirations, rather than the WTO.

With Nigerians at the helm both in the WTO and the African Development Bank, do you think this will contribute positively to how the country is seen in the international community?

There is a lot of visibility there. Also, if you look at the AfDB too, you will discover that the major forces in the organisation are still the Western powers. At a point in time, especially in the 1970s, Nigeria was able to lock them out in terms of shareholding. But they have since become majority shareholders, and that is why, when (incumbent president) Dr Akinwumi Adesina was trying to bid for the post, it was possible for them to try to lock him out. What I am saying, therefore, is that we have had, over time, a regression of Nigeria in the international system.

If that is the case, what then does Nigeria need to do to make its diplomacy and foreign relations more robust?

Diplomacy and foreign relations stem from domestic realities. In a context where, before the digital revolution, you found Nigerians lining up by 5 am in front of the various embassies seeking visas and you say you have a robust foreign policy, it cannot happen. Why are people running away? What is the push factor? What is the pull factor? If we have been able to focus on the push factor such that we are able to neutralise them and put in place variables there, then we will be talking about robust foreign relations.

The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), recently appointed the former service chiefs as ambassadors. Do you consider their nominations justifiable, considering their performance in the fight against insecurity?

I don’t have enough information as regards the government removing the service chiefs to being prospective diplomats. I wish I had more information. If I had more information, I would have been able to comment in a meaningful way on this particular issue. Remember we are talking about security here; we are not talking about issues that are known to everybody. Government is a series of waves within waves, so I don’t really know the inspiration which has encouraged the government to move in this particular direction.

Do you think the countries in which they will likely serve will look at them in the light of their antecedents or just as diplomats?

They will look at them in both ways. Remember that it is the government that will provide the information to the receiving countries, save for the fact that if they have embassies here, those embassies would also have forwarded their own reports. So, it’s probably a combination of reports from the embassies here and what the receiving countries think of them. Also, everything will depend on the texture of the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and those countries. Remember these countries engage in horse-trading among themselves. So, if there’s something that Nigeria has over them, they may just overlook all these street comments and agree to receive these service chiefs as ambassadors.

What is your assessment of the anti-corruption stance of the Buhari regime?

One has to be clear about this. Previous governments have been unable to take on the corruption issue and one can say that Buhari has been able to put it on our radar. In the process, we have seen other problems come up, and the main one is that corruption is also linked to what I can call the scarcity of public goods. Where you have ample public goods, corruption will be less. Sometimes, corruption partly stems from need, so we need to address that structure of providing public goods. If we had in place an economy with backward linkages in which jobs are not regarded as golden assets, then we begin to get somewhere.

There is public concern surrounding the whereabouts of the First Lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari, especially given how outspoken she has been about the Buhari regime, though her aide said she was on a foreign medical trip. Do you think the Presidency should be more forthright about her unusually long absence?

Let us reset the variables. Which public concern? Most Nigerians are struggling to put food on their table and survive. So, which public? People are saying Mrs Buhari is out of the country, as you have said, but when you say ‘public concern,’ I can’t see the public concern. Let’s use our words carefully, please.

You are right there that the President should come out and tell us about her whereabouts, but I don’t see what that has to do with everyday realities and struggles in this country. It’s peripheral, as far as I am concerned, to the fundamentals of existence in this country.

There have been reports of travellers entering the country without isolating or testing, while airport workers have been accused of not observing COVID-19 protocols, like wearing face masks. What are your thoughts on the general handling of the pandemic in Nigeria?

Let me say this: I’m not a medical doctor, but I read a lot about it. I watch TV and I see the Minister of Health and the Lagos State Commissioner for Health where they talk about these things, and I see the resources poured into this area. To that extent, I am of the view that a lot is being done. Having said that, I also feel that there is a general feeling out there that there is a political economy to these things in which some states that did not have COVID-19 are now claiming that they have COVID-19 because of the resource allocation involved.

Let me tell you my own personal experience, which may be useful. When I was in Ekiti, my pastor was very dismissive about COVID-19 and he saw it more as an instrument of resource accumulation. But somewhere down the line, particularly in January, I came down heavily with COVID-19 and then I knew that COVID-19 is real. To that extent, I have gone beyond seeing it as a mere platform for resource accumulation to seeing that it is real. I went through it; I had to be isolated. But luckily, I am now here, speaking to you.

Was there any point you thought it could take a turn for the worse?

Yes! I thought along those lines. As I was grappling with it, I was also hearing news of my secondary school mates dying from it. That was a stark reality; that is why I said earlier that COVID-19 is real and people should take precautions.

With over 140 universities, why is Nigeria on the consumption end of COVID-19 vaccines, rather than the production end?

That has to do with the fact that we are not putting enough funds into education. I have been in the Nigerian university system since 1982 and I believe that we have some of the best minds working in these universities. If you have a General and he is not armed, he is just like you and me. If you have a scholar/professor and he is not funded adequately, there is very little that he can do. The irony is that Nigerian scholars all over the world are playing crucial roles in producing these vaccines for these other countries, but bring them over here and they won’t be able to do much in view of the situation here.

Part of the problem is that those who try to lobby for greater funding for education do so in a rather passive way, with a minimal understanding of the presidential system. They just sit down somewhere, especially the unions, and they tell you that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has decreed that 25 per cent of the budget should be given to education. Fine, that is what UNESCO has said. But you have to go beyond that to engage with the social forces – those who are responsible for budget preparations. Rather, you will wait at the end of the tunnel for the 25 per cent and then, at the end of the day, they give you five per cent. A lot of the blame can go round. You don’t just get that 25 per cent automatically; you get it by legitimate lobbying.

I remember the scholar journalist, Dr Stanley Macebuh; he wrote a piece titled, ‘Lobbying as a Handmaiden of the Presidential System.’ In the presidential system, you are going to engage with the actors, and I am not even saying engaging with the executive here. You engage with the (committee) chairman of tertiary education in the Senate; and his counterpart in the House of Representatives. You engage the director of budgets and I am saying this because, when we were trying to expand our university, in terms of facilities and recruiting more faculties, we had to engage very seriously with the budget people, and those in the Senate and House of Representatives. It then occurred to me that this democracy, especially the presidential system, is not a spectator game. You have to engage with them right from the beginning because, as you are talking to them, those in health and defence are talking to them. But if you just sit down somewhere and begin to blow hot as a microphone revolutionary and say they should allocate 25 per cent – no. You have to engage with them because, as Macebuh said, lobbying is the lubricant of the presidential system. That’s why lobbying in the United States is a major industry, in terms of getting what you want legitimately.

Insecurity has been on the rise over the last few months, with incessant reports of kidnapping, killings and banditry. What do you think is at the root of all these?

The moment you have a cattle economy, what that means is there has been a lot of unemployment and when there is unemployment, you are bound to have insecurity. What it means, therefore, is that once you run a one-way economy, in which ships come into your country and unload and leave empty, it has total implications and one of the implications happens to be insecurity.

In terms of the farmers/herders crisis, there are calls for herdsmen to return to the North, while some argue that no Nigeria can be forced out of any state. What do you think?

I don’t believe in the notion of ‘To your tents, Oh Israel.’ What I believe is that there is a need for serious dialogue among Nigeria’s political elite on this issue because if you say the herders should go back to where they came from, you are making a mistake. Some of them were born here and to that extent, you would have been creating a lot of problems. And there are also so many Yoruba and Igbo in the North. I think what we need at the moment is a serious and genuine dialogue between the political elite. Unfortunately, because many of them are self-serving, they will not engage in that. If things should get out of hand, those who are doing the talking will not do the fighting and those who are doing the fighting will not do the talking. And in most cases, like in all wars, the underclass usually bears the brunt. So, from my own little corner here, I want to urge caution on the part of all the political elite of various shades that they should come together for serious dialogue.

Do you think Western Nigeria Security Network, aka Amotekun, is the solution to the crisis in the South-West?

The Amotekun phenomenon is a response to the fact that we have in place a lopsided federal political structure. I see it more as a child of necessity that is trying to contend with an over-centralised police force that we have at the moment. If you remember, the debate has always been on about whether we have a regional police force or not. But the circumstances became so catastrophic that Amotekun had to be brought into play. So, it is a solution to the crisis but we should look at it in a more structured way and what we need to do is to put in place regional police everywhere in this country. We have a unique federal system in which we have only one centralised police force. In other countries, they have county police, state police and federal police. In a place like the US, the universities also have their own police force. I think it is time to begin to move in that direction. By the way, that will not diminish the relevance of the federal police in any way; they should all begin to play complementary roles. In other words, the Amotekun phenomenon can do with a counterpart in the South-East, the South-South and the North in the name of a much more viable and functional federal system.

What are your thoughts on the #EndSARS protests?

The #EndSARS phenomenon brought something into play and that is that a level of potency can be ascribed to people power and I believe that, for too long, in this country, we the followers have not made sufficient and legitimate demands from our leadership. What the #EndSARS movement represents is that, for probably the first time in living memory, the Nigerian followers decided to come together to make a legitimate demand on the government, and unfortunately, there was a kind of derailment in which other forces took over. I believe that, with the benefit of hindsight, once the government decided to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, they should have (ended the protest) and regrouped to fight another day on another issue. That way, over time, an effective counter-force would have been put in place against the government. I am talking of legitimate demands now because once the #EndSARS degenerated into violence, the government has a monopoly of violence; you can’t challenge them on that particular platform. The initial thing, I believe, was very good. It was a good turning point for our democracy that people could come together peacefully and say, ‘This is what we want.’ But once it descended into violence, then some form of control was lost by the participants. Once the government acceded to their request, they should have just dispersed and formulated another issue another day. That way, through such an incremental process, a lot of change would have been able to come to Nigeria and our society.

There have been a lot of permutations regarding 2023 presidential election. What qualities should Nigerians look for in their next leader to overcome its present woes?

They should look for somebody who understands Nigeria’s problems, especially economic problems. But as it is, we are getting all forms of subnational jousting about Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and Fulani. What that means is that, at the rate we are going, we will elect somebody based on subnational identity, then the morning after, the person will wake up and say, ‘What am I doing here?’ So, we should begin to ask – and the media has a huge role to play in this: What are the problems? What are the issues this country is faced with? Youth unemployment, a lopsided economy, underfunded universities. What are the answers to these, not necessarily where the person comes from? As it is, we are putting ‘Z’ before ‘A’. What are the issues? What are the problems? Why do we have high unemployment? Why do we have mass migration from this country? Why are people willing to risk their lives from here to Europe via the Sahara? These are the hard questions. And what is the role of the leadership and the followers in all of this?

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