Several years after he left the army as a major-general, Ishola Williams has remained a dogged anti-corruption crusader and a consistent advocate of positive changes in Nigeria and the African continent as a whole. Even as an officer in the Nigerian Army where he retired as chief of Training and Doctrine, TRADOC, he symbolised honesty, accountability and discipline. These virtues have seen him through challenging leadership positions including the head of Transparency International in Nigeria. He is currently a member of the United Nations panel of experts to monitor the sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, and the executive secretary of the Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group, PANAFSTRAG, set up to provide in-depth studies and analyses of the challenges of political stability, safety and development in Africa.
A controversial social critic ever ready to air his views on issues, Williams in this interview with Wola Adeyemo, editorial director, and ‘Dipo Onabanjo, deputy general editor, discusses Nigeria with passion, assuring that in spite of the “wrong war” with the Boko Haram, the killings in the North, the fuel subsidy challenge, corruption and bad governance, Nigeria will never break up. The interview was conducted via Skype conference hall Internet platform.
Recently, there were protests in many parts of the country over the federal government’s withdrawal of fuel subsidy. What is your reaction to the protests?
The issue of removal of subsidy has been occurring for the past 30 years. Nigerians now believe that as we have Goodluck as President and Patience as his wife, they could not believe that the President could not have enough patience to tell them, explain to them over a period of time that he is going to remove subsidy over a period of time. What happened is that Nigerians ran out of patience, as they could not see any good luck in removing subsidy. The second thing is that it looks like we are not thinking in Nigeria. In every country in the world, especially those that want to develop, the first step is for everyone to agree on the figure and make people know that there is subsidy, how much is the subsidy that we need to remove, draw a short and medium plan on how to remove the subsidy. The next thing is, what are the palliatives you are going to give? The fifth thing is that the money you make from the subsidy, what are you going to use it for? You prepare people so that by the time you implement it over a period of time, people will be convinced that you have done your homework. But that has not been the case just like the past regimes that had tried to remove the subsidy.
Will you agree with people who felt that the problem is actually not the removal of subsidy but the timing and the approach?
The problem is the issue of subsidy itself because if you follow the argument of some Nigerians, including some experts in this area, some of them are saying that even at N65 per litre of petrol, we can still make profit, if refined in Nigeria. People are now saying those refining overseas, what is their production cost and how much do they buy the fuel being sent to them? These are all those figures that are hidden. Unfortunately for them they brought the KPMG report and going through that report will you ever believe that the government is really subsidising PMS? That tells us of the incompetence, fraud, corruption and everything.
There is this feeling that labour and the civil society groups have also failed to educate Nigerians on the facts behind fuel subsidy?
If I were the NLC, I would first go for negotiation. NLC should have come up with their own analyses and figures; the marketers should have done the same thing (and) we will bring all these reports together at the negotiation table with government. They will look at the figures and see if it’s true the government is subsidising or not. Once you have agreed on that, you then go to the people to tell them if it’s true the government is subsidising. You can imagine how that will change the opinion of many people. The NLC should not negotiate on pump price first, they should find out if it is true technically, financially, economically and otherwise if the government is truly subsidising without putting politics into it.
The subsidy debate has brought out the twin issue of corruption and increasing cost of governance in the country. As a renowned anti-corruption crusader, how best do you think the federal government can tackle the challenge of corruption and reduce cost of governance?
Now we have to separate the issue of corruption from cost of governance completely because how much did Abacha alone steal – that’s one person. When he was in power he was stealing but the then ministers were afraid to steal, that shows that if you have 10 people or 100 people in government they can steal as much as 200 people. The important thing is that what is the mechanism for stealing in Nigeria? It’s the budgeting system. So you must try and limit the number of ministries, and for the President to create any ministry he must go through the National Assembly. Same with the number of ministers. Nigerians are tired of talking of corruption. I am saying this from the little experience from the US and other parts of the world that corruption is something that is impossible to stop anywhere in Nigeria and anywhere in the world. If you want to minimise corruption in Nigeria today, stop impunity. In America you can be president or anybody but the day they catch you, you will go to jail. Then we need to know Nigeria’s impunity index instead of corruption index. This means looking into the number of cases EFCC, ICPC have investigated. How many have been taken to court and what did the court say about them? If we put that on an index every year in Nigeria alone things will change because the judiciary will see it, EFCC and people will see if the anti-corruption mechanism is working or not, because the whole essence of anti-corruption mechanism is to catch people, punish them and seize their assets.
Have there been countries where the impunity index has been used and it worked?
Most countries have been relying on the Transparency International index, but it can’t have any effect on corruption in our part of the world. We follow things that are told us from abroad but we need to be creative, look at our own situation and find answers to them. For example, if we sit down and take a closer look at the issue of subsidy we can find a way around it and do something the whole world will be copying from.
Nigeria has two agencies looking into the issue of corruption, what is your assessment of their performance so far?
The anti-corruption agencies’ performance is also linked to the judiciary. If they recommend people for prosecution, they have to work with the judiciary. Now the new chief justice has said corruption cases should finish within six months. Let’s see if that is going to work and see if EFCC and ICPC will make proper use of the instruction. The second thing is that you cannot rule out political influence because politicians appoint the persons heading the two agencies, although with confirmation of the National Assembly. So there must be political influence one way or the other. The third thing is that EFCC and ICPC have police culture. I do not see reason we cannot advertise for positions of directors and chief executives in our anti-corruption organisations for Nigerians both home and abroad to apply. In that way, they will be independent.
Do you think the Nigerian media have been playing the role of a whistle blower in the fight against corruption?
The media are doing their jobs, but they need to clean up. The kind of media we have now is either created by the politician or a friend of a politician. Most of them are not independent.
Another issue we have been battling is the issue of Boko Haram, the violent Islamic sect that appears to have defied every effort of the security apparatus in Nigeria. As a general and someone who has seen the use of bombs and security matters, what do you think is the way out?
Is this the first time you are seeing signs of Boko Haram? No! Their style and methodology may be different because they have learnt something from outside. They are not different from the Maitatsines of the 1980s and 1990s before they were routed out. The problem is that as soon as we finish one, we forget about it. I keep telling soldiers in Africa that nobody attacks African countries outside Africa. Your problem is internal; therefore, you have to develop strategies and doctrines to be able to deal with the situation. And that is what the British and Americans call counter-insurgency. Everybody in government keeps talking about terrorists. We don’t have terrorists in Nigeria and therefore you are looking for a doctrine that is going to address the issue of insurgency and that is what we need to do, not terrorism. It is impossible to deal with terrorism but insurgency can be dealt with.
Can you explain the difference between terrorism and insurgency?
In the case of Nigeria, Maitatsines wanted to create a state in which there will be no secularity, where Sharia law, Islamic system of education and anything Islamic would be practised. You could remember then that the Maitatsine was against Western education and other Western ways of life. So tell me the difference between the Maitatsine and Boko Haram. At that time, was there anything in the world like terrorism? At that time, bombing was not a common phenomenon around the world but Boko Haram learnt their ideology from the Maitatsine sect but added the use of bomb because it can be easily manufactured, it can be easily learnt from the Internet. Once you agree with that, counter-insurgency and other various measures and doctrines can be applied to deal with it. But are the Nigerian security agencies trained to deal with that? No, so they are fighting the wrong war!
The activities of Boko Haram are beginning to rock the country to its very foundation. Is the prediction that the country might break up in 2015 becoming more of a reality?
It’s a very big joke. Nigerians are not going anywhere. What surprises people about Nigeria is that the people in the Niger Delta were fighting over resource control. Now Jonathan is there (as President), everybody seems to have forgotten that struggle whereas this same issue is also fundamental in terms of the federalism we practise. Boko Haram cannot divide Nigeria.
Does the issue not bring us back to a need for a national conference?
No, it’s a joke. Instead of going apart, we need to write a new constitution. If we have a proper federal structure, it will deal with resource control, security, among others. The federal will be very weak, the state will be more powerful and the local governments within the state will be powerful. The problem is that we carry all the problems from both the local and the state to the federal government and the government is not ready to work.
With what is happening in the country – Boko Haram, the fear of civil war because of the killing of the Igbos and some other people in the North – would you advocate that…?
(Cuts in) Who is going to fight the civil war? Is it the soldiers who cannot fight Boko Haram, or is it Gani Adams and O’dua People’s Congress, OPC, that will fight the people of Niger Delta? In the first place, what are they fighting for?
When religion and ethnicity come to an issue, it becomes emotional and our fear is that there could be a civil war based on things like that.
Nigerians will not fight over religion or ethnicity. We have been living together for the past 50 years. About religion, Pakistan, Iraq with Muslim majority are bombing each other everyday, what do you call that?
Nigeria is passing through a lot of crises now. What do you think is the way forward and where do you see Nigeria, say in the next 10 years?
Generally, the problem of Nigeria is followership and not leadership. Reason: Jonathan does not come from Libya and if you are to put all the people of Niger Delta together they won’t vote for Jonathan because there are people in that same Niger Delta with more leadership qualities but they won’t vote for them. Like, if I contest in my area I will lose because I don’t have money to share. There is no cooperation among the followers.
Nigeria in 10 years: the question should be, will they continue their followership this way? Will they be able to set standards for their leaders, and when they fail to meet the standards will they be able to deal with them (leaders)? For Nigeria to be anything in the next 10 years, we need a real dedication of the followership.
Do you foresee the Arab Spring situation happening in Nigeria?
It won’t because ethnicity will come in. A good example is the issue of June 12 (the 1993 annulled presidential election which MKO Abiola won). They said it was Yoruba problem and that was the end of the story.
Poverty is going round and it does not know ethnic group. Maybe with this increase in the level of poverty people will begin to think about bringing about a revolution?
No. Poverty does not create revolution; it creates discontent. A hungry man is not a revolutionary. The middle class will create the revolution because a hungry man is just an instrument to it (revolution).