Interview of Dr. Femi Aribisala by Jide Akintunde, Managing-Director, Financial Nigeria Limited.
Q: About five years ago, you reappeared in the mass media as a radical preacher of the Christian faith. More recently however, you started writing articles on secular issues also, particularly politics. Why are you so much at home with politics intellectually and yet very disconnected from it vocationally and in your style of writing?
A: I am a student of politics. However, I hate politics. It is ungodly, it is false, and it is practiced with deceit. You cannot be a successful politician and, at the same time, be committed to the truth. Therefore, my interest in politics does not go beyond the academic. I write about politics primarily to expose the deceit of politicians. I could never be a politician. Neither can I ever be interested in occupying a political office.
President Babangida appointed me as Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; but I graciously refused the offer. In 1991, the government also appointed me Special Assistant to General Olusegun Obasanjo, when he was the Nigerian candidate for the post of Secretary-General to the United Nations. Again, I refused the offer. There was a vacuum in my life and I knew it could not be filled by the carnal pursuits of public office. My life was pointless and without meaning. However, in 1993, I met Christ through a life-changing personal experience and Jesus finally gave meaning to my life.
Q: Is your disillusionment with vocational engagement in politics a direct result of its failings in Nigeria or do you believe that politics, anywhere, at both local and international levels, is fundamentally an illusion?
A: Everywhere politics is a dirty game, not just in Nigeria. I would not advise the spiritual man who is concerned about his eternal destiny to get involved in politics. When Christians dabble into politics, we do not sanitize the system. It corrupts us. Nothing godly can come out of politics. It is a system of men, by men, for men. It cannot and will not bear godly fruit. Politics is inherently divisive, but God requires that brethren dwell together in unity.
Jesus was apolitical. He would never join a political party, run for public office or even vote. His kingdom is not of this world. When the people wanted to make him a political king, he refused. We should not accept an offer that Jesus rejected. When I write secular articles, some people jump to the conclusion that I must be looking for some political appointment. But I would never accept political appointment from any government.
Q: The intellectual views you have consistently expressed in your articles depict you as a realist. Yet, your non-core political analysis depicts you as an idealist, even a moralist and you are known to have expressed patriotic sentiments in some of your articles. How do you make the negotiation, considering that because we tend to politicize everything, we are invariably realists without strong ideals?
A: Yes, I am a realist and an idealist. But the two are not mutually exclusive. I am a realist in my appraisal of Nigeria; both in terms of where the country is, and what can be achieved in the future. My idealism has nothing whatsoever to do with Nigeria. Indeed, it cannot be realised in Nigeria. My idealism has to do with my faith. It is centred on my belief in the kingdom of God. In that kingdom there are no thieving and marauding politicians. Everything operates in conformity to the will of God and with God, nothing shall be impossible.
In spite of all the brouhaha that is the standard fare of Nigeria’s politics, I strongly believe that there are certain inevitabilities concerning the country. This country has a manifest destiny to be one of the greatest countries in the world. All the ingredients are there; size, population, natural and human resources, capital accumulation etc. My belief in this regard has not changed in the past 30/40 years. Nigeria is an economy on the threshold of a take-off. It is a miracle waiting to happen. Listen, it will happen even in spite of Nigerians. We can only delay the occurrence, we cannot prevent it.
Paradoxically, Nigeria’s greatest assets are Nigerians. Nigerians are a completely different kettle of black Africans. We have not been brow-beaten by colonialism or apartheid. We are not intimidated by Western prowess. The Nigerian psychology refuses to accept the myth that the black man is somehow intellectually inferior to the white man. You can see this in operation everywhere. The Nigerian stands shoulder to shoulder vis-à-vis whites and Westerners and, in many cases, bests them. We only become second-best when we come together as a team, as a people and as a country. But all that will pass.
Q: You believe that both the size and diversity of Nigeria are crucial for achieving its greatness. Nevertheless, you are not at all enamored of the political tendencies of the Northern political establishment. How do you suppose this country can move forward, not leaving behind or giving away, any more, its constituent parts?
A: Nigeria has the size and diversity critical for medium-power status. By every projection, it is destined to be the third most populous country in the world. Soon, the size of the Nigerian economy will surpass that of countries like Italy and Spain. Sooner, Nigeria will surpass even Britain and France.
Many of the countries we make a lot of song and dance about today have reached the height of their potentials. They have built the roads they need to build. They have built their required bridges and highways. They have built the houses they need for a population that is no longer growing. But in Nigeria, there is still a lot to do. That makes it an investor’s dream-country. Indeed, Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing countries on the planet. Soon the multinationals will be queuing up to set up shop in Nigeria because we are labour and resource abundant.
Q: Nigeria just became the biggest economy in Africa, following the GDP rebasing. Generally-speaking, Nigerians refused to see this new status as momentous. What in your opinion fates Nigeria to greatness?
A: The rebasing of the economy only reveals what many have known for some time. Nigeria has been by far the biggest economy in Africa, but this is even more hidden because the informal sector does not show up in statistical records. With the rebasing, Nigeria’s GDP estimates nearly doubled from $270 billion to $510 billion.
It is myopic to insist that this recalibration is meaningless for the poverty index in the country and for the high level of unemployment. The fact is that by rebasing the economy, we provide a more realistic avenue for addressing those problems. The new figures make Nigeria more attractive to foreign investors. It also highlights newly emergent areas where those investments could be made. Now we know that oil and gas no longer represent over 30 percent of the economy but only 14%. New salient areas have emerged since the last calculation of 1990, such as Nollywood, telecommunications and the local music industry.
Q: With the 2015 Presidential election about a year from now, perception of political risk of Nigeria is heightening in the estimation of local and international actors, especially those with investible capital. Give us a heads-up on Nigeria’s political risk.
A: Every time there is an election approaching in Nigeria, there are threats and counter-threats. Doomsday prognosticators come out of the woodwork, shouting “the end is near.” People should know us by now. Nigerians love drama. The 2011 elections were supposed to spell calamity for Nigeria. Nevertheless we weathered them. The 2015 elections will come and go; and then we will wonder what all the noise has been about.
The opposition to the government has metamorphosed into a coalition called the APC. This is a good development, as it is likely to keep the government on its toes. However, the APC itself is a collection of yesterday’s con-men. In a democracy, we often have to choose the best of an average, if not bad, lot. My assessment is that the ruling PDP still remains a far better option than the makeshift APC. The APC seems impelled by one narrow objective: the return of power to the North. After 38 years of unremarkable Northern rule, that is unhealthy.
International investors continue to bet on Nigeria. Nigeria remains the first port of call for foreign investments in Africa. The return on investment in Nigeria is among the best in the world. The much publicized insurgency has not impeded the economic activity in Nigeria. The Boko Haram has never attacked local or foreign companies. In spite of the insurgency, it is quite clear that Nigeria remains open for business.
Q: What does the Presidency of Goodluck Jonathan symbolize for Nigeria, especially in terms of how the country can move forward and be strong?
A: Goodluck Jonathan is the proverbial prophet who is not appreciated in his home country and among his own people. The government has failed woefully in addressing the age-old problem of endemic corruption in Nigeria. Federal reserves have disappeared and excess crude accounts have vanished into thin air.
Nevertheless, the achievements of Goodluck Jonathan have been considerable, although many people are determined that he should not succeed and are doing their level best to undermine and bad-mouth his government. The very fact that he is the first South-South president strengthens the Nigerian union. Giant strides are being made in agriculture. The foundation has been laid for the overhaul of power generation and supply. The rail-roads are working again. Roads are being built and repaired. The airports have received a make-over. Almajiri schools have been established up North. A National Conference is underway to provide a blueprint for the country’s future.
There is every indication that the second-term of President Jonathan would be far more productive than the first, because he would be more concerned with his legacy and not need to accommodate many of the bad-eggs in the PDP in order to secure further re-election.