A pharmacist and the 2019 governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in Lagos State, Mr Jimi Agbaje, speaks with MUDIAGA AFFE on issues in his party, the need for more proactive steps to tackle the novel COVID-19 and other political issues.
What is your assessment of the COVID 19 that is fast ravaging the world, do you think Nigeria can handle it if it escalates more than the way it is now?
Well, if we take the experience from those that have been badly affected, we must understand that we have a big hurdle to cross in terms of addressing this coronavirus issue. Developed countries that have stable health systems are being overwhelmed, so, to that extent I have my fears over our preparedness if we are overwhelmed similarly. So, I want to hope and pray that we can remain at the containment stage and not have a full-blown outbreak. The few cases that have come in, we have been lucky not to have had deaths, but let us not fool ourselves, we have quite some distance to go in the curve. We are still at the bottom of the curve and we do not know how high we are going to go. The Federal Ministry of Health and Lagos State have shown some kind of competence in dealing with the few cases that have come, but I am not sure we would be able to handle it if it becomes full-blown.
So, what necessary steps should we take?
It is for us to take it seriously. For instance, what is the level of the awareness campaign for preventing a full-blown outbreak? A lot of Nigerians are still living in denial because we are still having parties and events. You saw that it took the Federal Government some concerted effort to cancel the National Sports Festival slated for Benin in Edo State. I would love to see, for example, some leadership from the top like our President, if he shakes his hand normally with someone, I do not think there is a problem, but if I see him shake with the elbow and other gestures, I will begin to think twice about it. If I also begin to see that events are being cancelled at the federal and state levels, then I will know that there is seriousness. So, I think we need that awareness by showing leadership by example. I commend the move to restrict travel from some countries because if you look at what we have today, they have come from countries that are already in trouble. We need to get Nigerians to understand that we have a big problem ahead of us and if we do not contain it quickly, we would not be able to handle a full-blown outbreak.
Do you subscribe to complete travel restriction from especially Europe, Middle-East, Asia and America?
It cannot be total because we are all at different stages of that curve. Therefore, what we need to look at is to first shut down some things. We need to shut down some events. This is not the time to have social functions where you have a crowd that you would not be able to trace those that you have been in contact with. So, let us begin to reduce those activities of funerals, parties, weddings and all that, it is the first step. By the time you do that, people will know that there is a problem. Look at Italy, for instance, it is a Catholic country and they have closed Sunday services – that tells you that there is a problem. We need to begin to shut down some of these areas that make it difficult to trace because the truth is that by the time we have an outbreak that we cannot contain, then there will be a total shut down. But Nigeria is different from the developed countries because when you try to shut down the system in a country where a majority of the people live from hand to mouth, it means they cannot make any living. You are telling the market woman, the transporter who lives on daily earning not go out, then there is a problem. In those developed systems, they have organised online shopping that is structured, but we do not have it here. There are problems associated with shutting down the system and the best way out is to stop it so that we do not have that outbreak.
As a scientist, what do you think would have been the cause of this coronavirus?
God works in ways that He brings up these challenges from time to time. All I know is that the coronavirus originated in China. It is speculated that it was from some animals and the rest but the truth is that these things do happen. The fact is that it is here and we just have to manage it.
How would you assess the Major General Muhammadu Buhari-led regime in the last five years?
For me, Nigeria has had its challenges from inception and independence. It is unfortunate that we have yet to overcome certain things. The Buhari-led government (regime) has its own, and this comes with different administrations. This present administration has challenges of insecurity, economy and the coronavirus is going to throw its serious challenge. So, if we are going to judge the administration today, it should be judged by how they are going to address those challenges – poor economy, insecurity and unemployment, among others, that are very much with us. Unless we can address them, we cannot say that we are making progress. We should also begin to look at the underlying issues of why things are not working. That is where the issues of corruption and the way we are running the country in terms of structure will come in. Is it a workable system that we have put in place? Can we begin to tell ourselves that our security system will not be addressed from Abuja without bringing it down to the states and local government areas? These are things that we should begin to look at. This idea of every state going to Abuja at the end of every month to share revenue, is it the best way to trigger our economy? But when you look at the tripod that the government has set for itself, I believe the issue of corruption is a result of the way we are running the business in our country.
What do you mean by the way we are running the business in the country when it is believed that this administration has been at the forefront of the anti-graft war?
It is like swiping flies from meat at the abattoir, they will fly away but they will come back. The fight against corruption has to be deeper and that is where it comes to the way we are running government across the board. Having a centralised system in a federal structure will bring about corruption because we are looking at a situation where someone is so far away from those they are making decisions for. He is not in a position to deliver. So, a situation where everybody goes to the centre for everything does not help corruption. There is too much at the centre that is attracting corruption. It trickles down. If they are corrupt at the centre, it will affect the federating units and it has extended to the private sector. That is why I am saying that we need to go back to look at the structure critical. Do we need a centrally controlled police force? There are fundamentals that we need to look at and when this is done a lot of things will fall into place.
Do you think the Federal Government has the will to carry out a holistic restructuring that a cross-session of Nigerians are clamouring for?
I try not to use the word restructuring because it is misunderstood by many. But the real word is restructuring, if some people find it offensives we would need to break it down. When we say we want to do it differently it means we do not believe in a Police that is centralised and not working. It is more accepted today across the country that our Police system is not working- that is part of the restructuring. If that is accepted, then let us start looking at devolving more powers from the centre to the states and local government areas. These are things that subsequently will ride across the country. If you look at restructuring it now has constituent parts and not all of them will be accepted by the whole country from day one. But if we can get the majority of those constituent parts accepted, then Nigeria will be making far more progress than it is presently making. If we agree that the Police system should be decentralized, then we have taken one big problem out of our back in terms of restructuring. After then, we should now agree if the states should take charge of resources in their respective states and so on.
Is the Amotekun Corps the best way to devolve power in the policing system to address insecurity?
It is part of devolving powers down, which is part of what should happen in a federal system. I hear people talking already saying that those who have security guards in their houses are already running their Amotekun. So, everybody must have a right to secure his environment, community, home and to that extent, the setting up of Operation Amotekun is in the right direction. The Federal Police is no longer able to provide the kind of Police that is required. I am sure that other state governments will follow suit much sooner than later.
The United States Government recently indicted the Nigeria military and DSS over their involvement in the 2019 general elections, if this situation is not addressed, don’t you think it may play out again in 2023?
For as long as we are not going to prosecute those that have misbehaved in previous elections, including indicted security agents and thugs, subsequent elections can only be worse. What we have today is that we are not getting people being prosecuted, it will get worse.
As two-time the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in Lagos State, there are concerns that your voice is only heard whenever there are elections, how true is this?
People have to understand the way governance works in a presidential system. What happens is that a candidate comes out to sell his manifesto to the electorate, after the election, once a winner has been declared, the winner is expected to perform according to his manifesto. Jimi Agbaje tried to sell his manifesto in Lagos and a winner was declared, it is no longer Jimi Agbaje’s job to become the mouthpiece of the opposition because such role is that of the party and its elected representatives to challenge the declared winners. They should begin to challenge the promises of the elected winners and not the role of Jimi Agbaje. Take the United States system for instance where President Donald Trump is always lambasting ex-President Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton but is not Clinton or Obama that responds to him, it is the party, the elected representatives of the Democratic Party and the electorate that respond. Jimi Agbaje has tried to sell his manifesto twice and it has not been accepted, so, allow somebody else’ manifesto to be implemented and if not is not working, they can challenge it. For me, we must accept that politics is an all-inclusive game and everybody has a role to play. I think Nigerians generally believe that it is the candidate that must continue to fight, no, it is an all-inclusive fight. That is the way I see it, unfortunately, not everybody has accepted that. It is not the candidate that continues to fight after the election. It is the party and the electorate that should challenge. In some specific issues where the candidate feels strongly about, he would make his position known and I think I have done that from time to time.
Why did you contest the National Chairmanship slot against Chief Olabode George during the Port Harcourt convention?
You are referring to a convention that took place more than two years ago. I think we should leave that. I do not want to talk about something that happened about three years ago because so many things have happened after then.
There are insinuations too that you did not use the bulk of the campaign funds you got during the 2019 elections, how true is that?
No campaign funds were given to Jimi Agbaje- that is the truth. When people talk about campaign funds, whatever Jimi Agbaje used for his campaign, he raised it himself. Jimi Agbaje did not collect any money from the party, no state governor also gave money to him for his campaign and the party did not give me money too. That claims in itself is completely false.
Will you still contest the 2023 governorship election in Lagos State as a member of the PDP?
That is not something we should be talking about at all. What I think should happen after election is to allow governance to take place. All I can say is that I remain in politics, in what role or capacity I will play in the future, is open but definitely, I am not taking any decision in one way or the other.
The Lagos PDP just got new executive members, are you in support of the new structure?
Of course yes, it is a process. There is a new chairman in place. For me, I am definitely with the party.