Former Minister of Culture and Tourism, Frank Nchita Ogbuewu, talks straight no matter what the issue is.
In this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun, the former Ambassador to Greece, spoke on sensitive national issues, including Igbo presidency in 2023, recession, and restructuring.
He disagreed with Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi on the reason he gave for leaving the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Excerpt:
Let’s know some of your random thoughts on the EndSARS protest and its aftermath?
Of course you know that the tribunal is a court in its own way and the matter is before the tribunal especially in Lagos. I don’t think it is very necessary for me to start commenting on the issue now, so let’s allow the tribunal to do its job for now. Maybe after their report, one can make an observation if it’s still necessary.
How do you feel that Nigeria has again slipped into another recession? Some are saying it’s a global thing and not peculiar to Nigeria?
For me, there is a difference between recession and depression. I think what we are in is almost like a depression. I think we were back in recession before and we did not do anything or all that was needed to be done for us not to go into it again. Why is it that it’s when we get there before we start to look for a way to come out of it? Is that the best way? They say prevention is better than cure and those things that we are preventing are what can make us come out of recession. Why didn’t we do those things for us not to get here in the first place? For me that is the best approach, we should always try to prevent some of these things because it will be of great consequence to the people. We should not wait for it to happen before running helter skelter to address them. But I think we are lucky with what the president and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) did with agriculture. If they had not done that and these things combine with serious hunger in the country imagine what that would have been. There was this foresight that was adopted in this age of agricultural development and if we can equally adopt the same style in other businesses, small and medium scale businesses, it will go a long way to help. It is the small and medium scale industries that drive the economy of any country. The big ones that have the money are keeping it to themselves, but those small ones when they have the money they have to buy materials that they are going to use for production and whatever they are doing. So for me, I think the government should struggle hard for us to come out of the recession and do something that will keep us away from it, we must not continue in a recession every time, we can do better than what we are doing now, I believe so. I agree that COVID-19 affected the whole world not just Nigeria, every country had the impact of COVID-19 because when the country is locked for a month or more than two months definitely there is no way it can remain the same. But the question is, were we comfortable before the COVID-19? If we were comfortable enough with a surplus that COVID-19 of two months lockdown for instance could not have taken us to where we are now. There are still some underdeveloped countries that are still moving on despite the lockdown because they have a surplus so they use that surplus to push out the effect of the COVID-19. So, it’s important to have a surplus at any point in time.
As a former minister of culture and tourism, what can come out of the sector that can also help cushion the situation
Well, when I was a minister, I always talked about the diversification of our economy. I had always said that oil seems to be a curse for Nigeria because if we hadn’t discovered oil in the country, Nigeria’s economy would have been more on the rise than what it is today. Nigeria’s economy would have used the advantages of our culture to attract tourism to Nigeria. When I was a minister I introduced what I call dry season or in other words harmattan holiday season. Harmattan holiday season is a period that is very cold in Europe and America and that period is a period that we don’t have rain in Nigeria. We have good weather and they can come to hide in Nigeria and when they come to have the sunshine and the other things that we can offer, you can see that tourism sector will become a boost. I observed also that the month of December is usually a very lousy month for the economy. So, using December as a holiday period for that purpose would not kill Nigeria, but rather improve our economy. I forwarded the proposal on it when I was a minister, but we couldn’t get through but thank God Cross River is doing it today. December is a free period for them and I think they are not regretting it. When I was a minister I compiled the cultural activities that take place in Nigeria and sent it to all embassies in the world so that when you come in there while you are waiting for your visa you flip through those documents, as you are flipping through the documents you know what and what you can find in Nigeria when you come, different festivals that can take place at different times for October, November, December which are organised. For instance, the Arugungu festival can come into that programme, you know if you want to go for new yam festival or you want to go for Eyo festival, different kinds of festivals that take place in Nigeria that different people want to have. Even our cultural village in Abuja, near Sheraton, we have things on display there. Every state has something to display there, pictorial, theatre activities, and more. In every country you go to during the summer, you will see them having activities in their city centres. This is where people go to relax after the day’s work. You see people walking around there, people come there to meet people from different countries and have fun fare, but that is not working here because we did not consider it as something very important. I know that it is Agriculture and tourism that can make that change, but you can see tourism is having a very unfortunate incident because of the security challenge. But there is no country that does not have one security problem or the other, yet people go there to relax. It depends on how well you manage your issues. I think that our problem is refusing to diversify the economy. This total dependence on oil, oil, oil is not helping us. I still believe that tourism has a very huge part to play in the economy of Nigeria. It is the biggest employer of labour. I still believe that tourism and agriculture are the two major sectors that have great potential and that can easily employ more of Nigerian youths and women, but we are shying away from it rather than giving it all the necessary attention it deserves. But, I still commend Runsewe, our culture director; he is doing a good job there.
What is your take on the issue of restructuring Nigeria? Many are of the view that the country cannot function well with the present structure?
I don’t like talking about restructuring as a lone voice. The issue has been over-flogged and as you know different people, different geopolitical groups have made their opinion known, so, a lone voice like me talking about it is a waste of time. I came from a place, from a region, I am not a man from nowhere, and I know that my people have articulated their position on the issue of restructuring and I do not think it should be ignored.
What is your take on 2023 and the quest for the presidency by different geopolitical groups?
We are all asking our other regional brothers and sisters to consider us and allow us to have that shot. Let them concede the 2023 presidency to the Southeast, as a matter of fairness, equity, and justice. But above all, we have the capacity to do something different, to do something right and to do that something better than what we have. We have this potential to build, to unite with others, to love others. This country will witness great transformation with somebody from the Southeast as the president and this is not contestable because my people will deliver, we will experience massive all-round development of the country. Mediocrity should not be allowed to take place because of spread and I think placing a round peg in a round hole will give us what we want. In all sincerity, providing an opportunity for the Southeast to become the next president in 2023 will rekindle greater trust and unity in the land.
Some have argued that the Southeast really want the presidency in 2023, why then are they agitating for Biafra?
Well, those people with such a view are myopic because these are two different issues. When you talk about agitating for Biafra you ask yourself, how many people do they find at that level, so it’s not supposed to be an issue at all. What I believe is we should make more effort to form an alliance with other regions, that’s why I said that we are begging our Northern brothers, Southwest brothers, South-South brothers, every other political region to consider us and allow us to have a taste of fate that we are Nigerians as well.
You know it is one of the reasons adduced by the Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi that the PDP has always neglected the Southeast …?
(Cuts in) You see, the demand for the PDP to zone the presidency or for all the parties to zone the presidency to Southeast is not the issue, nobody is against that, we are all saying that they should zone it to Southeast, it is a question of reasons adduced. Some of us were in the government sometimes, I was an ambassador, I was a minister in President Obasanjo’s government and there is no way that somebody can tell me that Southeast never got anything, what Southeast did not get is the presidency, but we had good positions. We are yet to test the position of that office, I mean presidency, but not for you to condemn that PDP has been very unfair to the Southeast. No. That is why I said no, because we had a very good time with the past governments, including that of former President Jonathan, and even the government of the late President Yar’Adua, they all remembered the Southeast because if we have had the Senate president, deputy Senate president, Secretary to the Government, good ministerial positions, Governor of CBN, name them are they not South easterners? As far as I am concerned that is recognition, but they are two different things asking that we deserve to taste the presidency is taken for every Igbo man, but don’t give a dog a bad name to kill a dog that is what I am saying because if you say a government that has given us these positions has not done well to us for me I will not believe or agree with you. You can say that we should have that position (presidency), but not to tell us that we did not gain from PDP, that is why you left. It is even this APC-led government that has not given anything to the Southeast.