By Omoniyi Salaudeen
IN Nigeria’s elusive search for unity among its separate ethnic nationalities, Professor Ben Nwabueze, a foremost constitutional lawyer, lends his voice to the agitation for restructuring, saying it is the only way to go.
Looking way back to the days of Nigeria’s struggle for independence, would you say this is the kind of country our forebears had in mind while they were negotiating for self governance?
My answer will be no; not exactly. They had a vision of Nigeria as a great country. They had in mind a country that will become one nation. At that time, everything was focused on one united nation. But that particular vision of having Nigeria as one united nation has not been realized and the prospect of that realization seems too dim. They also had in mind a vision of a prosperous nation and a leader in the African continent. We may say, yes, the vision of prosperity has been realized to some extent in that things that were not available or possible during the time of independence are now possible. Up till 1948, there was no university in the country. The University College was established in 1948 by transforming Yaba College into the University College of the University of London.
Today, the number of universities in the country both federal and state is on a steady increase. That shows you the transformation that has taken place. At that time, very few people had an idea of what television and radio was all about. When Nigeria Broadcasting Service was introduced, there were only a few people who could avoid radio box in their houses. I recall the story of some thieves who broke into a house in Onitsha, packing this and packing that.
While that was going on, the Nigeria Broadcasting Service, which had gone on recess suddenly came on air saying, ‘Here is Nigeria Broadcasting Service’ and the thieves jumped out of the window thinking that somebody was inside the house. This shows you that there has been tremendous development. But then, couldn’t we have done more than this over this period of time? Is that enough with the amount of resources available to the country? The short answer to your question is that the vision of the founding fathers has not been realized. Development has taken place, but certainly very much short of what is expected.
Will it be right to trace the mutual suspicion that exists among different ethnic nationalities to the way and manner the founding fathers played their politics in the immediate post independence era?
In the immediate post independence period, the founding fathers you were referring to, which I suppose means Zik, Awolowo, Sardauna, Akintola, Okotie-Eboh and others were flushed out by the military. Sardauna was killed in the January 15, 1966 coup. Zik was out of the country at the time and came back later but no function for him. Tafawa Balewa was killed, Akintola was killed. So, the founding fathers were no longer in control. They were out of the picture. The military takeover in January 1966 helped to plunge the country into the kind of chaos and darkness that we are in today. What the military takeover in January 1966 did to us as a country was the destruction and undermining of our value system. The story has not been fully told. It nearly practically destroyed our values, the values these founding fathers inherited from the British colonialists. Today, as far as our values are concerned, no leaders either military or civilian could be compared with Zik, Awolowo, Sarrdauna and Tafawa Balewa. The values we have today are all money-related. That was not so before the coup. Today, money dominates our values. This is the tragedy. If we have a leadership that is concerned with bringing back the old values in place of money-rated values, then things could be better. I don’t believe it is impossible. It is difficult, but it is not impossible.
Last week some stakeholders marked the 50th remembrance of Aguiyi Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi amidst outpouring of emotions. Issues were raised over the motive of the Northerners in the army who staged the counter coup to avenge the killing of their kinsmen in the January 15, 1966. Couldn’t we have lived beyond the past as a people at 56? What is really happening?
These were two important personalities, especially Fajuyi who sacrificed himself in order to maintain a principle. Can that happen today? Now, to your question as to what is happening. There was a vision in the past, but I don’t remember that tribalism and nepotism really shaped governance in the country as we have today. I cannot think of a Federal Government in those days making 41 appointments and 80 percent of it going to one section of the country. It is unthinkable. In those days, they would balance it, taking cognizance of the division among the tribes. If you are making appointment into the federal level, you have to take that into account. That was how things were done, which helped to sustain the unity of the country. The idea of 41 appointments with 80 percent of it going to the North alone is unthinkable. It never happened in the past.
So, you can see the difference between the outlook of founding fathers and the outlook of the leaders today. We are no longer pursuing the idea of one united country. We are now talking about Northernisation and Islamisation of the country. So, there are agitations everywhere. Those who feel marginalized by the pattern of sharing of what you might call the national cake agitate. They become disaffected and take to the streets. The idea of Biafra was revived. It does not mean that Igbo really want to secede from the country. They have tried it and they know the futility of it. What they are doing is to protest against the unfairness in the sharing of the so-called national cake. And whoever introduced this experience in the sharing of the cake must take responsibility for what is going on today. We should not blame people who agitate; we should blame the people who caused the feeling of disaffection. They should take responsibility for the agitations and what might follow. We don’t know yet, but I believe somehow the country is on the path of disintegration.
Is it possible to trace the genesis of distrust among the ethnic nationalities to the first military intervention in politics which led to the killing of Northern politicians?
The distrust within the ethnic groups had been there before the coup. It is inbuilt because of the differences among the ethnic groups in their character, in their feelings, in their mode of life, in their customs. Because of these, the distrust was there. The job of nation building is how to harmonize and reduce these tendencies. That is essential challenge for nation building. You must not ignore the fact that these ethnic groups differ in so many aspects. But then, instead of trying to close the gap created and bring them together, what military rule did was to increase the differences. There was so much money made available by discovery of oil, which was not there before. Oil was discovered during the time of military rule and that altered everything. There was so much money but the problem was how to spend it.
People tried to help themselves to grab it. And that is why we have today separatist movements in the Niger Delta. We are spending money without taking cognizance of the damage oil exploration has done to us. There are legitimate grounds for complaining. You may not agree with their methods, but they have genuine reasons to agitate. Destruction of oil installation has affected the economy. Production of oil has gone down and this is complicated by the falling price in the global market. We are producing far less because of destruction by the militants. We need a leader who can rise above all these, not a leader who will stay in Abuja, saying he is going to deal with the Niger Delta militants ruthlessly. In my view, that is not the way to go about it at all. The question of dealing with them ruthlessly is a question of addressing the cause of their grievances.
If this trend is not checked and nipped in the bud, what might likely be the end result of these agitations on this nation?
We have seen the effect already. Every day, you cannot get power because the gas supply to the power plants has been cut off. Sometimes we don’t have light for a whole week. So, it is affecting everything.
If the agitation in the Niger Delta is sustained, the Biafra struggle is sustained, and the Boko Haram insurgency in the North east is not contained, what is the possibility of survival of Nigeria as one indivisible country?
That is the big question mark. Nigeria may disintegrate. But we must continue hoping, we must not lose faith in ourselves. We must continue to hope that somehow this phase will pass.
So, effectively Nigeria is already on the path of disintegration?
Yes, it is. It is a process and is already going on. If we are not able to terminate the process and we allow it to continue to go on, we may disintegrate. But I hope and pray that it will not go on like this.
This then brings to question the vision of President Muhammadu Buhari who fought for the presidency for four consecutive times to get there. Is it for his lack of vision that the economy of the country is on the reverse trend?
You are right; he fought for the presidency in three successive elections and he persisted. He failed the first one, failed the second, failed the third and finally won the fourth attempt. One would have thought that the man who went through three elections and emerged at the fourth attempt would have a vision of what he wants to do for the country not advancement of some personal agenda or sectional interests.
It is a complete betrayal of our expectation as to what motivated him to go on fighting. What we have seen is a complete betrayal of our expectations. Nobody would have thought that the man who fought four successive elections to become president would be there only to advance some sectional interests. It is difficult to reconcile. But that is what we have. We must continue to hope that the trend will be reversed and that he will give up this tendency to advance the Northernisation and Islamisation agenda. But what is happening today is clear that his agenda is Northernisation and Islamisation of the country. If he realizes the danger that is implicit in the pursuit of that agenda and that it contradicts the expectation of the people, he will look into the report of the 2014 national conference and implement it.
There is a loud agitation for restructuring almost everywhere in the South, whereas a sizeable number of people in the North still believe that the country should remain the way it is configured at present. What do you think is the fear of the Northern people about the idea of structuring?
Their own thinking is different. Their main thinking is supremacy. If we restructure, they will lose supremacy. If we restructure, the power of the Federal Government will go down. They can maintain this dominance only, if the powers of the Federal Government are retained as they are now. Restructuring means not only altering territorial structure, but also altering power structure. At the moment, the Federal Government at the centre is too powerful and the whole idea of restructuring is to reduce it to at least what it was in the First Republic, which they don’t want because that would affect their ambition to control the country. But they must realise that they can’t go on resisting this. We cannot continue with the arrangement that gives to the Federal Government excessive powers. We must reduce it and redistribute it to the six geo-political zones. It must be done. They don’t want any diminishing in the powers of the Federal Government at the centre which they want to control. They don’t want to control nothing but they want to control something.
So, what should the concerned stakeholders do to get out of this quagmire?
They should continue the agitation. That is all. They should continue the agitation employing all constitutional means. The hand must be forced to accept restructuring.
Going back to the Biafra agitation, there is on one hand a section of the agitators who prefer to toe the line of constitutional means, which you have just suggested to achieve their demands. According to the report, they have gone to court to seek intervention in their struggle for self determination. There is yet another group which believes in violent protest to achieve the same goal. Which of these two options is more viable?
I don’t believe in violent method. I don’t think it will pay off. It has not paid off in the past. The secession of Biafra for three years didn’t bring any dividend to us. Agitation by means of court action I do not think also will achieve the purpose. If you go to court, what do you expect the court to decide in a case like this? Will the court tell you that you have the right to self determination? What is self determination? That is a very ambiguous term. If you go to court to say you want self determination, let’s assume they grant you the right to self determination, how do you enforce it? Due process or constitutional process is not really about going to court. There are internal and constitutional processes that can force a change.
In what way? Could you define that constitutional process?
There are many of them. There are many processes that can be used to force the hands of government. Impeachment is one of them.
You mean impeachment of the president?
Yes. I don’t advocate that, but if you can muster the necessary majority and you impeach him that will teach everybody a lesson. There are other constitutional means of forcing the hands of a government that is recalcitrant. I don’t believe in violence, but it is unfortunate that they are following this trend. This country cannot progress without restructuring. It has to be restructured. Restructuring means reducing the powers of the Federal Government at the centre.
But some members of the Arewa Consultative Forum are saying that restructuring could be achieved through the National Assembly. Is that the proper way to go?
You mean constitution amendment?
Constitution amendment is not what we need. What we need is a brand new constitution drafted by the people at a referendum. The 1999 Constitution is no constitution in a proper sense of the term. It is a document imposed on us by the military. The people of Nigeria had nothing to do with it; it was done by the military. It is just a mere piece of paper, nobody regards it. It doesn’t enjoy sacrosanctity like the American Constitution.
What do you feel about the goings on in the National Assembly regarding the issue of budget padding vis-a-viz the anti-corruption of this government?
Initially, it was the Presidency that was accused of padding. Now, it is the National Assembly, specifically the House of Representatives that is being accused of padding. This whole idea about constituency project is really condemnable and I condemn it in very strong terms in some of my writings. When you investigate the whole concept and practice of constituency project, you see that it is really very terrible. The former Chairman of the Revenue Allocation and Fiscal Commission who was an engineer wrote a report on this, that it is chilling, the amount of corruption that had been perpetrated through the so-called constituency project.
But I am surprised that in spite of what has been said, they are still engaging in constituency projects. Not defined though, but still in the same concept trying to siphon money. You want constituency project to improve agriculture but end up using it to improve your own farm. We don’t know all the fact yet but it gives you sheer agony and anguish. What is done in the name of constituency project is unknown anywhere in the world. Yet we are still trying to keep it alive by padding the budget. Let’s see what we come out of the ongoing controversy about padding. The Sun