Nigeria: ‘We’re in a post-ideology age – people just want what works,’ says Ekiti governor Fayemi

By Donu Kogbara, Patrick Smith

Posted on Thursday, 27 January 2022 18:04
Portrait of Kayode Fayemi, the Governor of Ekiti State at his residence in Abuja, Nigeria on Tuesday November 9, 2021. Photo by KC Nwakalor for TAR

The governor of Nigeria’s Ekiti State and chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum talks to The Africa Report about the country’s security challenges, building democracy and the importance of devolution.

By the standards of Nigeria’s political class, Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi, at 56 years old, is a stripling. Fayemi comes across simultaneously as one of the country’s most senior politicians and a rather cerebral comrade for the youth revolution.

“There is a sense in which something has shifted, not just at the political level but also at the societal level, that I would call the #EndSARS moment,” Fayemi tells The Africa Report, referring to the mass protests by young Nigerians against police brutality in 2020. “The future belongs to young people. They just need to be better organised to understand the power of their votes,” he adds.

The 2020 protests and rumblings in the country’s two main parties point to a wave of young activists, tech innovators and entrepreneurs eager to remake Nigeria’s landscape over the next decade. It is shaping up to be an era of unprecedented change.

The demography speaks for itself. Half of the country’s 210 million people are under 18. The UN projects there will be 401 million people in Nigeria by 2050, making it the world’s third most populous country.

Fayemi’s balancing act helps explain how a radical democracy activist of the 1990s ended up in a governor’s mansion in the 2000s and then as federal minister in 2015. Now back as governor in Ekiti State, Fayemi is a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and also chairs the Nigeria Governors’ Forum.

This has pushed him back onto the national political stage. It also tests his diplomatic skills, given that the 36 state governors are divided by political party, region and policies on issues such as the herder-farmer clashes and financial devolution.

On all this, Fayemi has clear views. He supports restructuring the federation, devolving all responsibility for public health and education and focusing much more power on security and policing to the states. But he also wants something rarely attained in politics anywhere these days: a constructive debate on policy.

Along with that, Fayemi wants to see far more young people in public policy, running departments and ministries. He calls for intergenerational dialogue. That is almost revolutionary for a political culture that reveres age so much.

The threat of populism

That sort of idealism, along with his doctorate in security studies from King’s College London, explains why Fayemi has been so prominent on the international conference circuit.

But that counts for little in electoral politics in Nigeria, as he explains: “We’re in a post-ideology age […] people just want what works. They’re a bit impatient with understanding the minutiae of policymaking. […] They just want, if you like, a fast-food delivery of results and outcomes without bothering about the processes.”

Where that leaves Fayemi – about a year away from the next national elections, in which at least one of the major parties is likely to field a candidate from his native south-west region – is hard to gauge. And the country’s security turmoil and economic troubles are likely to upend all those confident forecasts about winners and losers in 2023.

Amidst all that, Fayemi’s style of national reconciliation and pragmatism could get steamrollered in a headlong rush towards populism and ethnic nationalism. If it does not, he could play an important role in the new order that so many young Nigerians want to see.

TAR: Security seems to be the overarching problem in Nigeria. What are the state governors doing to fix it?

KAYODE FAYEMI: Security is a priority of the governors’ forum. On a day-to-day basis, we review what is happening in our states because we are at the receiving end. Our citizens are the ones being attacked, either by banditry or kidnapping or insurgency. Governors are the ones dealing with the nitty-gritty details.

What’s most disconcerting is the response capacity of the security institutions. The military is everywhere now, but there’s a time lag between [when] people are kidnapped or bandits are operating and [the response]. That’s an area we need to work on, but it’s not for lack of effort of the military. It’s an asymmetrical war – often they don’t know their enemies, who are embedded in civilian populations.

We need to confront the challenge of inadequate personnel in our security institutions.

There is an inextricable link between insurgencies and the north-east

As governor, I’ve had to raise this with the inspector general of police. Ekiti is supposed to have about 8,000 police, but we don’t have even 3,000. So we don’t have enough to protect the citizens. And this is common in all states.

From their beginnings in the north-east, insurgencies have spread across the country. What is driving them?

There’s an inextricable link between the insurgencies and the north-east. […] A lot of the people involved in that, once they are under pressure by the military in the north-east, they push to the north-west and mix with the Islamic State West Africa Province and the migrants from Niger, from Burkina Faso and all of those areas. And then they come down south. So it’s not uncommon to have the same people involved in insurgency or kidnapping in Kogi or Ekiti, and then sending the money back for banditry in Kebbi or Niger or Kaduna states.

Some social-media platforms have become tools in the hands of extremists

Some politicians have been blaming the insecurity on particular ethnic groups. What’s your response?

We [state governments] want to partner with the federal institutions, to develop regional or inter-state networks that allow us to share intelligence, and then respond on a case-by-case basis. The notion that this [violence] can be ethnically profiled is absolute nonsense, as we often discover.

We had a situation in Ekiti in which kidnapping incidents were perpetrated by local people, not by Fulani herders coming from Kaduna or Kano. These were Ekiti indigenes responsible for kidnapping Ekiti people. And they were involved in something like seven kidnapping incidents. We eventually found them, then charged them in court after investigations.

Two years ago, the federal government closed all the land borders. Did that stop the arms and drug smuggling?

[It has continued] from the Lake Chad basin right up to Niger, Burkina Faso, not to mention down south. So the capacity of the immigration service, the capacity of our own military to really effectively police our borders is clearly called into question. And until we’re able to do that, we can’t talk about: ‘These borders have been closed.’ Petroleum products get out over the borders, weapons come from Libya to Burkina, to Chad, and then to Nigeria. Some even come through the ports in Lagos.

The proliferation of light weapons and small arms is a big issue that we have to deal with. The government is doing something about that. There is a small arms and light weapons control centre headed by a very bright retired military officer, Major General Abba Dikko, in the national security adviser’s office. We need to trace the source of these weapons, ensure that we can interdict them before they get to Nigeria.

If you’ve seen the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, you would see that we are a heroin and cocaine trans-shipment point. I’m talking about hard drugs, and the impact of that by people who also have access to weapons. It’s likely to get worse as we move towards the election season.

Do you think the APC can win in 2023, considering how unpopular President Muhammadu Buhari’s government seems to be?

It’s in the nature of political exchanges for people to develop a form of amnesia. You only remember what is happening at the point at which you have found yourself. Ruling parties always have problems when they’ve been in office for some time

Well, let’s look at the facts, not just opinion. In 2015, you’ll recall that even the centre of Abuja was at the receiving end of the Boko Haram insurgency, when the UN building was bombed, the police headquarters was attacked, Eagle Square was literally shut down for public events […]. I’m not saying by any stretch that we’ve completely eliminated insecurity. However, it’s important to get the facts right in terms of where we have come from. Can we do much better than we have done? Absolutely.

Buhari is an ex-soldier. People expected him to deal with the insecurity effectively.

He’s a civilian, democratically elected leader. There were things he was able to do as a military leader that did not require constitutional adherence, that did not require legislative approval. He could just take the decision and then get on with it: ‘I’m going to march into Chad as the general officer commanding, I’m going to lock up these corrupt civilian governors, without any reference to the rule of law’. […] Those were things that he did as a military leader and they were allowed by the dictates of the times. He can’t do that now.

But he behaves undemocratically in other ways. He banned Twitter, for example.

I would not subscribe to the banning of any social-media platform. But we also must acknowledge that some of the social-media platforms have become tools in the hands of extremists who have tried to undermine the stability and security of Nigeria. There must be other ways of dealing with that without necessarily banning [the platforms], and I believe that’s what the government is now trying to do.

You were a long-time campaigner for democracy. Now you are in power, do you feel that you’ve been subsumed by a pragmatic, realpolitik approach to government that isn’t about democracy?

I’m a student of history and I know that democratisation is a process and you would experience reversals en route. My own approach is to say that as long as the journey is progressive and incrementally better than where we came from, we need to keep building on it. Because subtracting from it may well return us to those things that I fought against: coup d’états – and we’re getting a number of them around Africa now, which could create a domino effect.

The things that I fought for – rule of law, elections, accountability – those are the things that I’m doing as an elected official. I believe that it’s made a difference in the setting where I operate. You may say that the jurisdiction within which I operate is not the national sovereign state level, but, at the sub-national level […], that’s where the people are, that’s where they benefit from good governance.

What about those local government officials who say they feel oppressed by the state governors and starved of resources?

I don’t know where that’s coming from. I have local authorities. I don’t have anything to do with their resources. I’m only a conduit for them as far as whatever they get from the federation accounts is concerned. Sometimes we have joint projects with them to ensure that the people really feel the impact of government.

What did Nigeria get out of the COP26 climate summit?

If the climate crisis forces us to be more creative and innovative in our thinking, I think that’s a good thing. Where the rubber meets the road is when you say you are defunding oil and gas projects as far as Nigeria is concerned. Those responsible should put their money where their mouth is – 80% of the emissions in the world today are generated by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

We need to have a structured engagement. I’m not so sure that what happened in Glasgow was really anything more than a show. It might have been a bit better than Paris 2016, but it’s not nearly enough in terms of engagement with the countries in Africa who are at the receiving end of deforestation and environmental degradation. We need to show more commitment to climate action, no question about that. But nations that are responsible for pollution should also take responsibility.

Tell us about one dream that you think could be realised.

Security. There’s no reason why we should be this insecure. A few days ago, I made the suggestion that we should create opportunities for a volunteer security force. People who come for youth service could volunteer to serve in the institutions because we don’t have enough people in the security services.

And what is your biggest regret in government, for the country and yourself?

For the country, that we’re not where we should be. We’re still in the dark and we could have done a lot better in the 20 years of our democratic experience. And, personally, it would have to be the reordering that I’ve always wanted to do between the states dependent on federation resources and generating more resources locally. That balance has not been quite achieved and it’s something that I’m not fully happy about.

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