By Daniel Ayantoye
Former Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, Prof Usman Yusuf, speaks to DANIEL AYANTOYE on the Niger Republic crisis, corruption in Nigeria, among other issues
Nigerians are currently facing hardship due to the removal of fuel subsidy. What can be done to save the situation?
First and foremost, this government did everything without planning. The President on the day of his inauguration just announced that fuel subsidy is gone without planning of the effect that the removal will have on the people. He is supposed to plan for the consequences of the removal of fuel subsidy on the people. They have to go back to the drawing board. As of today, the spokesperson (for the government) said there won’t be any more rise in petrol prices.
So, the subsidy is coming back. There is so much confusion. The economic policy was done in a rush without due consideration of the effect it is going to have on the people and we have seen that everywhere, people are suffering and facing difficult times. The President needs to know that a bag of maize is now 60,000. Some people in Abuja spend 70 per cent of their earnings on transportation. You don’t introduce such policies without having the aspects that will cushion the effect. It was all rushed and this was due to the prescription of the World Bank. That’s what the bank wanted them to do without due consideration and it is very sad because people are suffering.
Inflation is everywhere, food prices have increased, grains, fertilizers, cost of living have increased and there is nothing available. Fairly, what this government has been doing with the economic and security policies is to shoot first and ask questions later. All of these policies are not well thought through and are not people-friendly at all. Whoever brought these policies has no connection with the people at the grassroots. Nigerians are suffering. Before the President even put together his team, he is bringing all these policies; you don’t run a government that way.
But President Tinubu must have taken some of these decisions based on advice from trusted persons. What do you think?
He has not been properly advised. He should go back to the table and consult because these policies are not working. Nigeria is an import-dependent country. If you drive a car, you have to buy the imported part. Everything is imported. So, the prices of everything will be up. It is driving inflation and even if they triple the salaries of workers, inflation will gulp it. There is confusion in the Central Bank, you don’t have your team, you have been carrying out the prescription clearly by the World Bank and it is not working and it is going to cause serious problems. This government is one that will have the shortest honeymoon, it’s just two months and there is already confusion. There is no connection at all with the suffering of the people, all over the country. People are suffering. Many are not even going to work. So, it is a failure, the economy is a failure; security is a failure, just two months.
Some are already saying the subsidy on petrol should be returned so that Nigerians can breathe again and that removing the fuel subsidy will only make the government richer and Nigerians poorer. How will you react to this?
You see, the propaganda they were telling us was that subsidies benefitted only a few and it benefitted our neighbouring countries because they said people were smuggling fuel there. Well, now that they have removed the subsidy, who is suffering? The government knows that it was their friends that were benefitting from this fraudulent subsidy because we know that there was really no subsidy. People are just being scammed.
President Bola Tinubu has to ask himself first; is the life of an average Nigerian better today than it was two months ago? The answer is no. The life of an average Nigerian is worse today than it was before May 28. Since he came, he has done nothing but inflict pain and suffering on our people; the most vulnerable among us. He is squeezing the masses; he should squeeze the top too. He is aiming at having 48 ministers; he has a consuming government, instead of having a contributing government. So, the cost of governance will increase because every one of them will have a convoy and many other things.
Look at the rascality in the Senate. They are giving themselves billions of naira to buy vehicles and holiday packages. They don’t care. Democracy means nothing to a hungry man, to an angry man, an unemployed man, and to a man that is not secure. People need to see the dividend of democracy. What is democracy to a hungry, homeless, unemployed, and hopeless man? There is so much impunity. The government doesn’t care about the suffering of people. What they have done so far is to increase the suffering of people. Just ask a Nigerian a simple question; is his life better today than it was before May 29? He will tell you no.
In 2019, you were removed as the Executive Secretary of the NHIS by former President Muhammadu Buhari. How did you feel about the decision to remove you?
I am happy! NHIS is a long story; I see it now as history and I’m happy I am gone. Giving voice to the voiceless, my fight was public, and I am doing better things now for humanity than when I was in the NHIS. I don’t have time to talk about history. I look forward to it.
What must have made the Buhari administration remove you as the NHIS executive secretary?
I don’t want to talk about the NHIS because it is history. My fight was public. Go and read all my fights in the NHIS. I fought the good fight and I will fight that same fight again and again. I fought a good fight.
Corruption has become a big issue in Nigeria. How will you rate the performance of the Buhari administration in the fight against corruption?
Zero! Look at them all; it was just a distraction. They were not serious about it, I thought they were, but they were not. If you don’t fight corruption and bad governance, you will never move forward as a country.
What were the indications that Buhari did not fight corruption?
What do you mean about the indications? Look at the ministries; is there anything more corrupt than the ministries? Look at oil bunkering, NDDC, CBN, and NNPC; there is corruption everywhere. They have never known more corruption than there was then. I don’t need to tell you more. At least, these ones are not pretending they will fight corruption.
One of the things you said then while you were in the NHIS was that you were making efforts to fight corruption. How well was that achieved?
You are still talking to me about NHIS, I don’t want to talk about NHIS, but as far as I’m concerned, I have moved on. Were they on another planet? My fight was public? It was everywhere and I don’t have to rehash it. I fought a good fight and I will fight again any day.
I don’t mean to take you back. When you were in government, what were some of the bottlenecks that you experienced?
You know that the government was not serious. When the government says it fighting corruption and somebody is fighting corruption, support them. So, it was just all talks, it was not real. Nigeria needs serious leadership, and honestly, we don’t have it. It all talks that we are going to fight corruption; we will do this and that. It is all about talk.
Does it mean that corruption was inherent in the immediate past administration as some said the government protected corrupt people who were members of the APC?
I don’t know why you are asking me about the Buhari government. I’m not part of his government, I have been out of the government for four years and I have been criticising them for the last four years. Go and read all my positions on that government. Let’s go and wait for the verdict of history on that government.
Recently, there were issues of allegation and counter-allegation of job racketeering in the Federal Character Commission. Was there such an incident while you held sway at the NHIS?
Go and ask them, I didn’t come to this country to do that nonsense. That’s not me, that’s not the way I was brought up and that is not the way I brought up my children.
How will you describe the situation in FCC now, especially when you consider the high rate of unemployment?
It is all over! Do you think your son can get a job in CBN or NNPCL? People just pay, even though a person wants to go to the Nigeria Defence Academy or Police College, people pay. That’s how things are done with civil servants. Even people pay to be Permanent Secretaries. It is terrible that corruption has eaten deep into the lives of Nigerians. Leadership just goes round and round, saying they are tackling corruption.
What can then be done to tackle corruption?
When your son applies to CBN, NNPCL, will he get a job based on merit? Go there and see.
There are two things; corruption and bad governance. If you don’t tackle them, you are just wasting your time. Unless we have a leadership that is serious about tackling corruption and bad governance, we will just continue to go round and round, end of the story. We will just be talking big grammar like we are talking now.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Abbas Tajudeen, recently named behaviours, norms, attitudes, expectations, weak governance structures and lack of transparency as factors affecting the fight against corruption in Nigeria. Do you agree with him? How did all these affect you as the NHIS boss then?
Everybody knows the sources of corruption and who is corrupt, forget all this long English. If they are honest, they will do the right thing. These leaders will just write beautiful speeches and they don’t know that it’s all nonsense. Everybody knows the truth, and we should stop deceiving ourselves. We need a strong leader to shake things up. I don’t see anyone on the horizon to be honest.
A Senator contested the presidency and the senatorial seat at the same time. There is also an APC chairman who has been indicted of fraud, which is in the public domain, and other people in government with several fraud cases. But these people are walking free without being prosecuted or even arrested. What is your view on this?
Of the ministers, Senators and former governors, how many of them don’t have a case with the EFCC? The person investigating them was the immediate past EFCC chairman (Abdulrasheed Bawa); they took him away and locked him up. Where is he? They are violating his constitutional right as a citizen. No fairness and a free trial. He has been locked up for two months and they have not charged him to court. This is just because he is investigating these ex-governors and these same former governors that he is investigating are now in these cabinets. Do you think anything will change?
The previous EFCC chairmen; Magu and Bawa, were removed after one allegation or the other. What do you think is happening with the commission?
Allegations are nothing. If you have something against Abdulrasheed Bawa, take him to court and charge him and not continue to lock him up against his constitutional right. Has any EFCC chairman been convicted from Nuhu to this current one? We are in a democracy and not in a military rule. If there is any charge against him, take him to court and let the court decide. So, the situation has been politicised and it is becoming worthless.
It seems they are locking them up so that they will not run out of the country during the investigation like the case of Diezani Alison-Madueke. Don’t you think so?
They arrested Bawa two months ago, and the constitution provided the number of days he can remain in custody before he is arraigned. You have kept him now for two months without investigating him and the people that he was investigating are now in your cabinet. I can say anything I want but I have to charge him to court to prove it. This is democracy; people have the right to be heard in a court of law. So, it is wrong. Incarcerating him for over two months is infringing on his constitutional right as a citizen.
Will you say the same thing in the case of ex-CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele?
Now, that they have charged him with several other counts, they should allow the court to do the right thing.
With the corruption level, does it not mean that the country is in trouble?
Is it now you just realised it? We have been in trouble for a long time. We are in serious trouble. This is Nigeria for you. Nigeria, we hail thee.
How did we get here sir?
This is not how it was when we were growing up. We had the best of Nigeria. I’m so sorry for the young ones. Those days, we prayed for our leaders after we had prayed for our parents. This was because they invested in us. They were decent people and were also good custodians of our commonwealth. But now, the President, Senate President and governors do what they like and everybody does what he or she likes. People are suffering, people are insecure, people can’t send their children to school, and there is unemployment everywhere. Then you are asking me if we are in trouble? There has been trouble for a long time, but it is just increasing.
Some are saying you personally have an affiliation with Niger Republic and that’s why you are against ECOWAS and President Tinubu’s stance on a possible military intervention or action in the country. What is your reaction to this?
Of course, I have an affiliation with the Niger Republic because we are the same people. All these borders are just demarcations. I’m attacking the President and his government on principle and even ECOWAS is against them. They are very inexperienced. The President was not advised properly, he didn’t make consultations with the people and yet, he is just trying to take us to war. Even the military is not ready. The service chiefs are just resuming and we don’t have the capacity.
Nigeria is broke; we are borrowing to pay salaries. Who is going to fund all that? President Tinubu is looking for legitimacy which is why he is doing the bidding of the Western world. It is unnecessary. How can you fight with your neighbour and expect to live in peace? It is not well thought through and it shows their inexperience internationally. There was some arrogance; they did not consult with people, especially those in the area and they just decided to do this. We will oppose them and they will fail. Would a Yoruba man in Lagos have accepted Buhari to invade the Benin Republic or Togo? Will Yoruba elders keep quiet? You invade there, cause issues and leave all the troubles for us?
The North has been at war for 14 years with Boko Haram, and nine years with bandits. Don’t bring another war here. That’s why we are raising our voices. Is it because I have a synergy? Yes, I do, but we speak the truth, affinity or no affinity. There is no need to do this (war against the Niger Republic). They should go back to the drawing board and continue negotiation and consultation. We should help them transition instead of issuing empty threats.
You once mentioned that the primary responsibility of President Bola Tinubu is to Nigeria. Are you saying as ECOWAS chairman, he should look the other way when things go wrong in a neighbouring West African country?
Did any Nigerien vote him to be ECOWAS Chairman? I don’t even know how he became ECOWAS chairman.
But based on the arrangement, it was Nigeria’s turn to become the chairman of ECOWAS.
His primary responsibility is Nigeria and if Nigerians say no, that is no, and you cannot go to war without the approval of the Senate. Our elders say no, traditional leaders say no, and clerics say no. What should you do as a President when the people are saying no? You don’t have that power? Power emanates from us, the people, and not the President. So, you can be anything, be the Chairman of the United Nations, so long as he is the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he must listen to us, and we are saying no. So, he should go back to ECOWAS and tell them that the people are saying no.
Some are saying President Tinubu may be taking this decision to guide against a replica of the coup in Nigeria because a crisis in a neighbouring country may extend to Nigeria. Don’t you think so?
Do you think the military invasion of another country will cause the invasion of your country?
But there is the belief that as a neighbouring country, it can influence it.
No, the only medicine to military takeover is good governance and ending corruption. But so long as our leaders continue with bad governance, corruption insecurity, unemployment, out-of-school children and increase in the cost of living, there is always the risk and that is why instead of invading other people’s country, the leaders should protect, nourish and guard their democracy by exhibiting good governance and making the life of people better. Do the right thing with your people instead of going to fight for other people. It is not your business with Niger if they decide to have the devil as their head of state. How is it your business? Why do you think going to fight for them will stop you from suffering the same fate?
You have insisted that a negotiation should be carried out to resolve the issue in Niger, but what do you think should happen if the junta insists on remaining in power like other African countries ruled by the military?
What can you do? You just continue talking and the pressure from the international community, including sanctions for them to come up with a transition period to hand over to a civilian government as soon as possible. That is the most it can get. Any military action is a no and you will fail. Why wasn’t any military action taken against Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea or Chad? You have to take this threat of military action out of the table, ease the sanctions, put their electricity back, keep talking and negotiate for a transition period to be given.
The life of the ousted President must be guaranteed. But here, ECOWAS is saying if they don’t relinquish power, they will invade the country. Never start any negotiation with a threat. If you start any negotiation with a threat, you will fail and this is exactly what is happening. Stop all the threats and come back to reality. President Tinubu should be very careful; he should not be doing the job for America and France because they are the ones pushing him to go and invade, and we Nigerians are saying no. And be careful not to get involved with the Niger Republic. It will be a proxy war between the Russians who are coming with the Wagner forces and NATO.
We don’t want such things in our neighbourhood. That is why President Tinubu needs to be smart. The Niger Republic is our neighbour and we should be good. We should intervene and find a way to solve problems.
But the decision to apply military action on the Niger junta was a unilateral decision of ECOWAS leaders and not President Tinubu?
There is no ECOWAS without Nigeria. So, whatever decision they arrived at that level, he has to come back and get ratification and approval from the National Assembly. ECOWAS’s decision is not final. It is the people and the National Assembly of that country that has the final decision. Just like the American President cannot make a decision in the United Nations without reverting to Congress. Just because he is the Chairman of ECOWAS does not mean he has a blank cheque to make Nigeria fight in the Niger Republic. It is subject to the approval of the National Assembly and subject to the approval of the people. He and his advisers need to know that.
But the constitution empowers him as the President to take critical decisions on behalf of the country in this regard. Why will you say it is wrong?
Critical decision without reverting to the National Assembly is a no. He must revert to them, end of story. He is not a dictator, is he? Even during the military, the head of state cannot do that without the Supreme Military Council. President Tinubu needs to learn; Nigeria is not Lagos. Here, we will ask him questions at the National Assembly. He is just nine weeks old and he is taking the country to war.
You had played key roles in negotiating with non-state actors, especially as it concerns insecurity and you worked with former Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Buhari on this matter. Why has insecurity remained a challenge in the country?
In each of the six geo-political zones, there are security issues. You have banditry, kidnappers, Boko-Haram, ESN/IPOB, Nigeria Delta militants and cultists. Each one is different and people need to understand. If you don’t have a diagnostics of the situation, how do you write the prescription? For each of the six geo-political zones, the Federal Government needs to understand the peculiar situation there. For me, banditry is a social problem that has been allowed to degenerate into this criminality. Yes, there is a role for the military but there is not going to be a military solution to banditry. Negotiation must be engaged. If there is a will to solve insecurity, it can be solved in a year.
Most state governors have continued to tamper with local government funds without minding that the third tier of government should be a different entity. What should be done for governors to stay away from local government treasuries?
All credit to former President Muhammadu Buhari because he tried to correct the anomaly. He insisted that local government money must go to them directly. The biggest problem is that with the joint account, all the money is with the state governor. He does what he likes with it. There is poverty in all the local government areas. Some of the LGs are not functioning. If there is something to do in the villages, why are people moving to the cities? They moved to the cities and unemployment increased. The President must address this issue of giving independence to the local government by giving them their money directly. If I’m the President today, this is what I will do.
Most Nigerians today can barely afford to take care of their health needs. Why is it that an effective health insurance scheme is absent in the country?
It is corruption, corruption and corruption. End of the story. I was there, I know it, I have seen it and that is why we are here. We are not serious about the fight against corruption in Nigeria. That’s just it.
Governorship elections will be conducted in Kogi, Bayelsa, and Imo states on November 26. What is your message to INEC on the need to conduct credible polls in these three states?
We have a problem with INEC. We have lost faith in the umpire. And in any democracy, if you lose faith in the umpire, there will be problems and that is why we have the presidential election today in court. Any leader that does not have legitimacy will have an issue. INEC knows they are not clean and they need to do better.