By Daniel Kanu
Prof Sofiri Peterside, activist, teacher, sociologist, and political historian was in Lagos recently. He came to deliver a keynote address on the National Water Bill. He picked a lot of holes with the bill as he asked citizens to reject it.
Sunday Sun spoke with him at the event and he opened up on other critical national issues, including security challenge, Transparency International report on corruption, leadership failure and clamour for president of Southeast extraction, among others. Excerpt:
Why are you against the passage of the National Water Bill?
Honestly, my major worry is the issue of privatisation of water. If we take into consideration, most institutions of the Nigerian state have been privatized. One of the arguments in support of privatisation is the promotion of efficiency and, of course, quality services in service delivery. We have not seen that happen and there is a natural attachment, emotional attachment people have to water and at the moment the government is relegating its responsibility to be able to provide that. Now when you say people also require licensing to even sink boreholes, because most people provide their own water, that in itself will create some problem. And so, I think as much as possible government should make access to water very easy for the common people because it’s actually a very essential product for human existence. And even in the advanced societies if you take into consideration the Golan heights, in the Israelites areas and all that, part of the crisis is about water and so I think that we should be able to learn from those experiences and make sure that the country is already having some challenges security-wise that we don’t need to escalate and exacerbate the security challenges in our country. It is sad that citizens are already providing everything for themselves, electricity…if you don’t have a generator you are in trouble, you can’t even preserve your food. The government is not even able to provide water and we have seen that has also gone the private line and still nothing is happening. We cannot afford fuel, there is an oscillation in prices consistently, so are nagging evidence that the takeover of all these things through privatisation may not if not properly planned and anticipated, the challenges accommodated will also create some more problems. That’s my worry and concern. The National Water Bill as presently packaged has various issues that border on the federalist structure of our country, you don’t dispose of a level of government of the right enshrined in the constitution without first and foremost actually amending that sections of the constitution. It doesn’t work like that. It is not as easy as that, and there are also legal issues already raised and there are local classical, cases established that say that your physical planning, because water is part of the physical planning and if the constitution says that the state government has a right in this area, unless within the federal capital territory, but I think that government itself should be able to obey laws, and if all citizens actually obey laws, the government should also do the same. Part of the quarrel is that the various arms or levels of government powers allocated to them by the constitution should not be taken away unless certain fundamental sections of the constitution are amended. If it is not amended then the status quo prevails.
You mentioned the issue of security challenges in the country, are you optimistic that the new Security Chiefs will perform the magic of ensuring that things will get better security-wise?
It is still very early to begin to judge them because you can also see that few days after they have taken over insurgency is still continuing, the boys are hitting harder, there are complaints in the social and the print media of soldiers who have lost their lives fighting for the security of this country, the way, and manner in which they were buried without access to their families etc, is also a problem. I think that it is not even about the Service Chiefs, it is about rejigging the security apparatus of the state and making sure that what they were doing in the past, they need to do those things differently. That is what is key. My worry also goes to the families of those who have actually lost their lives in fighting for the territorial integrity of our country. They also need to be treated fairly. You can see also what is happening now, the former Service Chiefs are now being recommended for ambassadorial positions. That is another way of shielding them from international law for whatever they would have done. I think that is also going to encourage those who are actually in power now, the new Service Chiefs, that you can do things and you are not answerable, that is a dangerous signal and very worrisome. They should be answerable to law, both national and international law. Yes nationally, it’s not possible; there is international law and so when you begin to shield them from international law you create the impression that those who command those kinds of positions are above the law, and that is very worrisome.
Recently, the Transparency International gave a depressing report on the corruption index in Nigeria, but the Federal Government is kicking against the TI verdict…?
(Cuts in) You see, what we have seen about governments in our country is that any report that does not favour them they will make noise and kick against it. Even when you check the recent report globally on corruption, even when the government is saying it is fighting corruption, but the report has shown there is an escalation in corruption even the dimensions it is assuming is also very high, so whatever report that doesn’t favour the government they seek to condemn such report. But I think that is not the way to go. The way to go is to look at the key issues raised by that report and see how you can apply those issues and to actually improve on circumstances, that is what every government should do or ought to do and not sweep every such analysis or report (especially if it is against you) under the carpet. You need to look at it. Those who are advising the government that ought to be their responsibility. They should look at the issues raised and the consequences of that and recommend to the government what to do to actually improve on those things. At the moment government’s fight for corruption etc, is having a human face, that is not how it should be. The law is not a respecter of any person and, therefore, the symbol of justice is that of a lady who is blindfolded, on one hand, is the sword, on the other hand, is the scale, so wherever that scale tilts, she is blinded, she just uses the sword, and that is what ought to be, it is not about persons. The government needs to be firm in the fight against injustice, the fight against corruption etc, need not have that kind of human face that it has in our country. That is what is fundamental.
Where do you locate the problem with Nigeria given all your researches?
Honestly, the problem of Nigeria is leadership. I see the failure of leadership. Even in terms of selection of leadership, we do not look at qualities; we look at the section where the person comes from. People are already angling, those who want to be president or where the next president will come from, so in Nigeria, we are always looking for those kinds of sentiments rather than look at capacity, the track record of the individual, etc. Instead of looking at the quality of the individual, we are looking at the political system, where the person is coming from, how the person is going to benefit his people, etc. Even that one has its challenge because the impression seems to be created that certain sections of this country have that perpetual right to lead. For instance, the South-south region whether by accident or design had an opportunity to be president. The Southwest has had the opportunity and I pose the question: what is wrong if the Southeast becomes the next president? I ask people this question and nobody has been able to answer me. If we have fought a civil war and Gowon said: no victor, no vanquish, if that happens, it shows that really that the country can be unified, but so long as you continue to deny a certain segment of our country that access to that position, it creates a problem, that problem of trust, that problem of social solidarity, which is very necessary. I don’t come from that region, but I think from my knowledge of studying political history, you don’t exclude any part of the section of this country from occupying that leadership position. In my own lifetime I never expected that somebody from the Ijaw, my tribe can be…, so what is wrong with somebody from the Southeast becoming the number one man (president)? The Southeast has good qualified people, so what is wrong with allowing them to produce the president? We must ensure that justice and equity are given a chance in our system, as well as capacity to deliver. If every segment of our country given the nature of ethnic politics in our country should have access to that, it will douse tension, I stand to be contradicted and the whole separatist agitation will also simmer down.