Former president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), Charles Chukwuemeka Oputa, popularly known as Charly Boy, was among those who led the recent protests by Nigerians against the biting economic hardship in the country. In this interview, the singer/songwriter, television presenter and producer opened up on why he fully participated in the protests.
He also spoke on the general state of affairs in the country declaring that he does not support calls for the breakup of the country. Charly Boy, who harped on the need for Nigerians to begin to demand for their rights, warned that, “our sufferings will remain with us and be aggravated until we do the right things to secure our stolen future.”
You were actively involved in the recent protests against the government over the level of hardship in the country. Why?
Why won’t I participate? Are we not all suffering? Are we not all angry? Are we happy with how Nigeria is being run? That’s why I participated. I can never be silent in situations like these; it is not in my character to be silent when the occasion calls for active engagement with the authorities. So, we expressed our frustrations. For once we wanted to get young people and ordinary Nigerians to be awake to their responsibility. Our problem is not President Muhammadu Buhari, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Bola Tinubu or whoever. We have a fundamental problem and until we start to address it nothing will change.
I say this because if government is supposed to be for the people, the people should hold government accountable. And it’s not through their docility; it’s not through their inaction. Somebody cannot come and collect your father’s land and you are not doing anything save lamentations and you expect to retrieve it. How does that happen? You have to engage. So, the right thing to do was to come out.
When you say that the problem of the country is fundamental, what do you really mean?
Our mumuness (foolishness). We are docile and inactive. We have been corrupted by fear. We have been corrupted also by the deceit of our elders and our leaders. It has messed us up as a country. If you check with the people who were born in the last 20 years or even more, none of them saw the goodness of Nigeria. It’s people like me that was born 60 years ago that saw the real Nigeria. Even at that time, the country still had problems. We were canvassing for independence but we didn’t have any plan about how we are going to live together when we get the freedom. There was no such plan; all that Nigerians knew was that they had gained independence.
But look at us today. Corruption has been part of us since independence. That was why Major Nzeogwu and co struck in 1966. Corruption didn’t start during the Jonathan administration; it didn’t start during the Obasanjo administration neither did it start during the Babangida administration. It has been there with us but the citizens are docile; we are inactive. Majority of us are also ignorant on account of religion. People have taken their problems to God. They don’t want to work towards the solutions because they believe in miracles. So, I’m trying to educate the youth that there is no quick fix to life. You have to work for everything; you have to create your own miracles. So, the protest was all about getting Nigerians to wake up for once to what they are supposed to do because we are all guilty. Buhari or no Buhari, what about the rest of us?
But do you think protests would really change the status quo?
You cannot do one protest and expect everything to change. But if this becomes a culture, if it becomes a habit, people in leadership will be very cautious. So, it’s not a one off thing; it’s a continuum. The only way our conditions will change is when we start making frantic demands on our rights to good education, good health care, good roads, good future and what have you. If Nigerians get used to actively making such demands, it will get to a point the government will certainly listen to us.
There is this view in some quarters that the problems of the country have to do with the structure and nothing else. Do you subscribe to the view?
Yes, to a large extent part of our problems has to do with the structure. We have not built institutions upon which the country will rest. Look at the United States of America, for instance. Somehow by some crazy luck, Donald Trump became their president. Trump just woke the other day and signed an executive order barring some people from coming into the country. And the court said no to him. They have great institutions! When we have a great institution in the judiciary and they are able to represent the poor man such that once you go to court no matter who you are contending with, as long as the law is on your side you will get justice, we will be making progress. But not when they are hawking judgment like corn in the market. So, we have not built institutions and that is part of the fundamental problems that we have. Almost everything done in this country is based on sentiment. When they want to play their dirty politics, they will knock our heads together. That is when they will remind you that this person is Igbo, Hausa/Fulani or Yoruba; and that there is a way they behave towards other people and so on. We are all falling for it.
How can we overcome such tendencies as a country?
By constant sensitisation. Thank God for the social media even though I know they peddle fake news sometimes. But with the social media, serious and genuine messages get around very fast.
There have been persistent calls for the restructuring of the country in recent times. What kind of structure comes to your mind each time you hear that?
People should go back to their home base and develop it, and then we can all share from each other’s good fortune and be interdependent. The centre should be decongested. I will not advocate for the breakup of the country; no, no, no. Let’s fix those fundamental problems. It’s unfortunate that we allowed them to fester for this long and that is why the campaign now is, “our mumu don do” (our foolishness is enough).
You have said you are not for the breakup of the country but your kinsmen in the South-east are seriously agitating for Biafra. Does that worry you?
I have written about my stand on Biafra; people should go and read it. It is the same thing that I’m saying — people should go back to their base and develop it. And it has to start from the communities at the local council level. We have to start to build up the communities. We should start asking our local council chairmen what they do with their monthly allocations and internally generated revenue (IGR). Let’s start holding our governors accountable. By the time we take care of the home base, the centre will not be much of a problem. But if we start it from up, the politics will always be there.
For the Igbo man who is agitating for Biafra I ask, ‘which manner of Biafra?’ Biafra is in my heart. I’m a Biafran child; I’ll always carry Biafra in my mind. At least I witnessed the civil war and saw the wickedness of man. It wasn’t just bullet that killed us, hunger killed us too. That is not what I want to go through again in my life. So, there has to be a smarter way and that is why I’m telling the Igbos, ‘let us go back and fortify our base’.
Yes, they have been talking about the need for a seaport in the South-east so that as a people who are naturally entrepreneurial, we can do our businesses with ease. But I’m saying that even if the Federal Government is dragging its feet, there are lots of Igbo millionaires and billionaires that can come together and do that. How can you go and be developing every other place to the detriment of your own base? It’s not a good thing. Then, the thing I have against the kind of Biafra they are talking about is, who is going to lead me? Is it all these riffraff? No! Is it not the same problem with Nigeria? The problem that somebody in Imo State is having in terms of leadership is the same as that which somebody in Bauchi State is having.
Some people have rationalised that the alleged neglect of the South-east by the Federal Government is behind the agitation for secession…
(Cuts in) Well, will you reject yourself if some else rejects you? If you are rejected, you talk to yourself. And that is what I’m asking the Igbo to do. They should talk to themselves. If you are so hard working, if you are so tenacious, if you are so industrious, there is no way you cannot make the South-east another Dubai. Okay, people have said that the North has been controlling power at the centre. We have had Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar as presidents and both of them are from Minna, Niger State. How is Minna today? Is it the Dubai of the entire North, nay Nigeria? Is it not having the same infrastructural problems that other cities in the country are having? So, how does that change the people? Have you ever seen any strong economy that is not private sector driven? Look at Onitsha, for instance. What are we doing with it? What are we doing with Aba? So, the truth is that we are the ones marginalising ourselves.
But government has to provide the infrastructure first?
As they are not providing it, what is wrong with our hands? Are our hands and legs broken? Or is the solution in sitting down and blaming government at the dawn of every new day? How will that aid our survival? Are we out of our senses?
In the course of this conversation, you identified corruption as one of the major problems of this country. How would you assess the anti-corruption crusade of the present administration?
Well, until we see all angles, we can’t really form a conclusion but from where I stand, I think it’s just the president and his vice that are in the boat. But it has to be a holistic thing. I don’t think the ministers are in the same boat with Mr. President and his vice so to speak. And if we have to fight this corruption, which has become our legal tender and which has eaten into our marrows as a people, we all must be involved. That is why I keep going back to ‘our mumu don do’.
Our leaders didn’t come from other climes; they are from this same Nigeria. So, if we see that things are not working well, what are we the masses doing to change the direction of things? Or do we fancy narrating the same old story? We have heard the same old story since 1960 and nothing has changed. Instead, things get worse every new day; so something has to give. You can’t expect a different result while doing the same thing.
In terms of fighting corruption, what can ordinary Nigerians do?
Once they start to hold leadership accountable, there will be less impunity in the country. That is just the basis; that’s why I said our problems are fundamental. The system is that of chaos and where the mighty survives. Because of our wrong and misplaced values, once you have money whether you are a thief or murderer, you have sense. It no longer matters whether you are a riffraff or a criminal. Whose fault is that?
What could be done to salvage the situation?
The awareness should be there so that people would begin to think right and place priorities on the right values. When I was growing up, if somebody exhibits some kind of goodness, including people who made good grades in their WASC, we promoted such a person or people. You promote goodness so there can be more goodness. But when you keep promoting evil as being smart, that is what will permeate the entire fabric of the nation. But what are we doing as individuals to ensure that wrong values don’t infect us? That is why I say that we are all guilty. As a person, I have put myself forward to promote the right values and condemn injustice anywhere I see one. I cannot hide myself.
How do you think the country can tackle some of the security challenges it is contending with like herdsmen menace, kidnapping and Boko Haram insurgency?
First, these challenges are there as a result of the joblessness and hopelessness in the country. Once we start to sincerely hold leadership accountable, once there is people power, things will change. But if they don’t fear us, the masses, nothing is going to change. When they wake up one day to see that the masses have said “our mumu don do”, things will change and there will be a reduction in all those vices you mentioned.
Are you saying that only people power can transform Nigeria?
Yes, only people power can change this country. There is no other power because the government cannot be more than the people. I’m not under any illusion to think that what we recently did or what we are going to be doing till the end of the year in terms of drawing government’s attention to our conditions will be the solution to Nigeria’s problems. No! But at least if we cultivate that habit, in three years time, some things will change in this country. Like I keep saying, if they drag you out of your father’s house and you cannot defend your father’s property, that means you are less of a man. This Nigeria belongs to all of us and we must demand for our rights. We must express anger at the direction this country is going because nobody will come out of it if something is not done now. Even those who think they are safe will find that they are just sitting ducks because there will come a time in this country when those who have stolen all the billions cannot enjoy it here. People will just not allow that to happen.
What steps do you think the country should still take to stimulate the economy out of recession?
It’s still with us, the people. If we understand the politics of demanding for certain things, we cannot have a bunch of mediocre running the government. I have said that ultimate power is with the people. We can change these things if we are determined.
But it’s government that will come up with policies that will turn the economy around?
Yes, government will churn out the policies for real. But when they know that they are not safe if they come up with some policies, they will sit up. They will search for the right policies to alleviate the poverty in the land.
Is there any step the government should quickly take to ameliorate the hardship in the country?
They should just have a re-think. They should just know that this is the beginning of something strange, something that we don’t really expect as a people, and something that nobody knows where it’s going to end. So, if they love themselves, they should start listening to Nigerians. If they don’t, they should continue the way they have been going and let’s see where it’s going to lead everybody. I’m not going to crawl into my bed and die insignificantly. The thing is that if you talk you will die, if don’t talk you will still die. So, if I have to die, I have to bow out with a bang and any person who doesn’t understand that, ‘his mumu never do’.
So many Nigerians have urged the president to disband his current economic team. Do you subscribe to that view?
I subscribe to putting square pegs in square holes.
Are there round pegs in square holes at the moment?
Remaining in Nigeria? Why not? You can also ask me if there are honest people in Nigeria again and I will tell you that you are looking at one. I don’t care what anybody thinks, but you are looking at one. And there is room for honesty even in this present rot; there is room for hard work. These are the values I grew up with; these are the values that I promote. These are the values we should all promote if we want to reset Nigeria. We can no longer promote values that have not helped us; no, it can’t work like that.
So, even in all these rot, there are still honourable people; there are still men of integrity. My father was one and he brought me up in the right way; I’m representing and I know that he is proud of what I’m doing. Even though people say we are corrupt, it’s not all Nigerians that are corrupt. I am not corrupt. I’m a full-blooded Nigerian but I have lived my life not allowing the negativities of Nigeria to live in me. So, the Nigerian way as it stands now does not live in me. I know other people of integrity and that’s what gives me the confidence to continue in this struggle, knowing that the salvation of this country only lies in the hands of exceptional people. And there is quite a bunch of them in Nigeria now.
Less than two years into the life of this administration, politicians are already strategising for the 2019 general elections as evident in the defections from one political party to the other and the crisis some parties. What is your perception of the development?
That’s business as usual now. It goes our negative ways and that is why I say that it’s the people that are going to change it. You can’t tell somebody who has been enjoying stolen money all his life to stop and he will just stop. He will continue until the day he knows that stealing is bad and has dire consequences. It’s then that he will say, ‘God forbid, I can’t go through all that’. That is when things will change and it’s in our power to effect that mindset. I believe in the people. People used to say that Nigerians are the happiest people on earth, that when we are pushed to the wall we will break it. But where is the wall to break again? There is no more wall. So, it’s either we fight it out not by violence (I don’t advocate that) or we continue to suffer. There are many things you can do to mount pressure on the leadership of the day and hold them accountable. That is why I always go back to people power; that is why I’m with the people.
With the way the country is going, what do you see in 2019?
I’m not a prophet but what I expect to see in the next two or three years is a change in the status quo. Until that happens, as a country, there will be no change. Our sufferings will remain with us and be aggravated until we do the right things to secure our stolen future.