Prof. Itse Sagay, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), is the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC). In this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI, the legal luminary speaks on Nigeria’s journey in the last 59 years after Independence on October 1, 1960. He also spoke on how the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has greatly dealt with corruption in the country. Excerpts:
Nigeria celebrated 59 years of Independence as a sovereign nation on Tuesday. As one of the Nigerians who witnessed our independence on October 1st 1960, how do you think we have fared as a nation?
Well, we certainly have not lived up to our potentials. As I always tell people, our politicians and public officers have engaged in too much self-service at the expense of serving the nation, unlike the first set of politicians and statesmen we had, like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik), Ahmadu Bello and others. They felt that the greatest honour bestowed on them was to allow them take on governance and serve the people. They shunned all form of materialistic lifestyles and if you research into their lives, you will find out that someone like Awolowo never stayed in Government House. He had a small bungalow in Oke Ado from where he operated as Premier of the Western region. Zik was a little bit lavish but relatively modest compared to the politicians of today. Ahmadu Bello didn’t have any house. He stayed in Government House and when he died, he had no house anywhere. That was the same thing with Tafawa Balewa. When he died, he left nothing for his family. So, those people just sacrificed themselves for the country.
Also, because we had three very strong regions, there was development at the federating level, not just at the federal level. They had resources, powers, and they competed with each other, thereby, the country developed rapidly. But since the military took over and over-centralised the government, then all the resources of the country was taken to the centre.
Also, the quest to become governors, senators and ministers became a deadly struggle and self-aggrandisement rather than love for the country. The regions became states and the states as a result simply became very weak and ineffective, to the extent that in Nigeria now, every month, the states go cap in hand to Abuja to beg for money from the federal purse, which they shared among themselves. The federal government on the other hand, gives this money to them as if it is the owner. That is why the states have suffered serious atrophy and degenerated to where it is today.
Another thing that has happened is that, the character of the politicians who ruled has degenerated. We are having poorer sets of people in terms of character and sense of values. So, that combination of over-centralisation, atrophy of the states and poor level of character and behaviour of those in power has made the country gone progressively downwards.
From all you have said now, is there hope for the country going forward?
The only hopeful sign is that this present government is committed to right the wrongs. There is a genuine effort to revive the country. From their various social investment programmes and the way we came out of economic recession that we suffered immediately this present government took over in 2015. Now the government is building up our reserves and you can see a lot of activities going on. The railway system, which was non-existent and had practically died before this government came, has been brought back to life. They have completed Itakpe-Warri, they have completed Abuja–Kaduna. And now, they are now building from Lagos to Kano. Already, there is a plan for Calabar to Lagos.
As chairman of PACAC, can you say there has been improvement in the fight against corruption?
In the area of corruption, all the fraud in the past has greatly reduced. For example, there is no more fuel subsidy fraud. It has gone. Previously, it was costing us about N400 billion a year. That has disappeared under this government. We have recovered over a trillion naira in the last four years from looted funds of the government, which has now been put into the social investment programme.
We have also recovered over $700 million and more are being recovered. I think the federal government is going to get another $300 million Abacha loot from the United States of American government. Unlike the past, recovered funds are now being put into the budget and used transparently. Previously, as soon as the money was recovered, it was shared among government people and it disappeared again. So, we have some hope ahead of us. We have seriously degenerated but hope is coming. If we can sustain what the present government is doing for another 10 years, I think Nigeria will be in good shape.
Do you think former military leaders who are alive should apologise to Nigerians for their role in bringing Nigeria to where it is today?
Definitely they should apologise. Nigerians deserve apologies from them given the way they mismanaged the country. I believe that Ibrahim Babangida is really one of those who brought this country down. He was the one who legitimised corruption. He made it legitimate and an acceptable way of life. He didn’t see anything wrong in being corrupt and he allowed people to do it. Seeing this, others also joined them and the civilians carried on. Of course, the endless processes of return to civil rule that he had, which he kept on cancelling and the June 12 election, all that contributed to the travails we are suffering now. So, former military rulers who are alive should apologise for putting this country into where it is today.