Chief Cornelius Adebayo is a former minister and governor of old Kwara State on the ticket of the Unity Party of Nigeria in the Second Republic. In this interview with KUNLE ODEREMI, he reflects on current trends in Nigerian politics, among others. Excerpts:
Fifty years after the tragic incident that claimed the life of Colonel Fajuyi, a lot of Nigerians came together to celebrate a man they described as the hero and symbol of national unity. What would consider as the inherent lessons in his life and times?
I will say whether soon or later, the deeds that men do live after them and the results will become obvious. We are celebrating a man who made personal sacrifice, and we are talking about his own life in the interest of the nation. And except for what we are now doing today, there are those who may wonder whether it was worth awhile to make sacrifices for this country, because either people don’t understand or they don’t appreciate. Fifty years, that is what it takes before this man celebrated, and the celebration is regional but his sacrifice is national. Yes, he was killed in Ibadan, but he died in Ibadan protecting his guest, military Head of State of Nigeria, of a different nationality within the Nigerian federation; self sacrifice but to cement the unity, which they were supposed to be providing for the country as a result of the military taking over the government that was before them. And now that he is being celebrated, I feel the celebration is too narrow; the sacrifice he made was for Nigeria, and not for western region; not for western Nigeria, not for Ibadan. He should be celebrated nationwide, and I hope we would correct that mistake.
Do you think the country has sufficiently demonstrated the inherent lessons in that tragic incident that happened about 50 years ago, given the prevailing state of the federation today?
It is supposed to be a corrective government; a coup was staged by a column of officers in the lower ranks and the highest officer of the military at that time took over himself and it is true that very many people were not happy about the way things were going. But he was visiting Ibadan and he became a victim of coupists, and his host apparently didn’t want him to be killed would not leave the side of his boss, as it were, a senior officer, where he was a regional head. That was why he had to sacrifice his life.
What have we learnt from the coup? What have we learnt from any coup? We have had coups and coups. Sometimes, they have worsened matters; we have seen pecks of improvements now and again. But it has not always been prolonged or sufficient to justify what we have been doing to ourselves. It is my hope that our government from this time forth will change through normal political process according to our constitution.
You talked about what we have been doing to ourselves. What precisely do you mean?
What we have doing to ourselves is people being in position, taking advantage of it in self interest alone, forgetting why they were put there—in public interest. I think what is responsible for that kind of mentality is greed; sometimes, insufficient understanding of what goes as supposed to be in government. We have been learning less and less, but public concern and service after the first set of leaders. The first set of Nigerian leaders had an idea about what they are supposed to do for their people. But, we forgot more and more.
Taking a look at your brief stint as an elected governor of old Kwara State in the Second Republic, how how do you see politics in contemporary Nigeria?
I won’t be able to do that. Politics is not the same any more. I wished it was. Before I became governor, I was a senator. It was in the middle of term that I turned 40. There were people who felt I was ambitious, but I went by public will. If it was today, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to a council seat. I didn’t have money, and the people told me that they were not asking for my money; that they would spend theirs; that wanted to be properly represented. That was my pledge, and from there, they asked me to come and try for the governorship. And we had leadership and parties that had principles and programmes, and advertised these when they were contesting elections. I belonged to the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Anyone, who was contesting a position, went through very rigorous primaries, very objective; very fair that gave people, fresh hands like me to win nomination over seniors and experienced people old enough to be our parents in UPN. It is not done today; somebody, who sees himself as the boss determines who contests an election; there may be pretense at primaries; it is never real. So, we have moved backwards; our democracy has become less democratic. Our service has become less public; it is has become increasingly personal and self-serving.
How do we move forward?
What we should do is learn, where the rains began to beat us; let us find out what we have done wrong and from when, and then, we design what to do to correct it. And some people are doing that all around the country already. Some of us walked out of partisan politics for this reason. I don’t belong in any political party, even when I was made a minister, I didn’t belong in any party because I can’t make it in this kind of system. And I don’t believe in it. It will be a sin: beneficiary of a democratic system, who had nothing but became everything, as it were, now, to be part of those people; joggling with those people who believe that they have the right to make everyone and everything.
Then, how do we address the undue use of money, positions, and godfathers in politics?
Devil fathers! I think awareness is the beginning of correction; we are aware now. I hope many more of us and those of you in the media would let the world know that people have these feelings, and who believe that some of the problems we have in the country come from insufficient understanding of what government is supposed to be.
The excuse of the military for usurping power in the past was alleged high scale of corruption among the political class; so, they came in as corrective regimes?
Some of them brought in greater corruption than they ever had. Who are the most corrupt leaders of Nigeria that we have to-date? Until the last administration, it was the military. Did anybody steal as much as the late General Sani Abacha? Was that the military? So, we must know what is wrong. For us, it is a question of going back to where we were at the beginning: clean, clearer politics. If a party is going to contest an election, it must have principles; it must say what it is going to do when it gets to power so that it can be assessed against its profession, to start with. When I was going to contest election under the platform of UPN, our programmes were free primary education, integrated rural development, free health, etc. These are things that you can assess. If I said I was going to do that, after four years, you can say, how much of these has he done? Does this man deserve a second chance? But along the way, you keep saying this is what you are going to do; this is what you doing. How many of the recent governments gave us programmes? How do you assess people when they didn’t say what they were going to do and the leader is not insisting on programme? So, you are not establishing a medium of assessment.
What do you think is wrong with the existing federal structure that people now demand restructuring?
There is over concentration of powers in the Federal Government. There is a need for reversion in the sense of true federalism, I said reversion because it wasn’t like this at the beginning. Even even when we were in the colonial era; the regions had greater powers. But, the powers of the regions have been whittled down more and more, and the Federal Government has too much power and does too little. Also what we have always wanted even before the British left us, we wanted a restructuring of the Nigerian federation and they said we can do that when we took over. There were people who campaigned for it. Awolowo was known for his struggle for it, the agitation for the Middle Belt and things like that. The people of Kwara State were asking for merger with the Western region and In parts of Kwara, they were contesting elections and winning against the government in power, but since then, we just diverted ourselves from it. We should get back to that; let people have what they want, and let nobody be a minority where they should belong to the majority.
There are some us who feel that we will save a lot of expenses if we should return to a parliamentary system of governance. We have nothing to losee. You make your ministers from members, who won elections into the House. So, it is not as if we are paying legislators; as if we are paying ministers, or you are paying senators. The same group pf people who were democratically elected and there is a limit to the powers that any of a particular one can wield. We feel that we have nothing to lose; but certainly a lot to gain if we revert to the parliamentary system of governance. You make your ministers from members who won elections into the House. So, it is not as if you are paying legislators; you are paying ministers, senators, and so on. It is the same group of people, who are democratically elected and there is a limit to the powers that any particular one can wield.
What will become of the existing 36-state structure, even as there is a pending National Conference report for 54 states?
Whatever we want to make of them, some of the states, in those days, were provinces. For example, Kwara State was substantially what was called the Ilorin and Kabba Province. Before it was broken up, the Kabba part of it has gone to what is now called Kogi State. What is wrong with going back to that arrangement? It worked, and I believe that it will work again.
But, the demand for additional states persists?
Yes, they can have more states; there is logic for; minorities want to be among themselves and not minorities, where it is possible for them to be equal partners with everyone else. That is what we are struggling for in the Middle Belt, where I come from. I mean it has always been there; it not a new call.
The activities of Niger Delta militants recently spread to parts of the South-West, to be precise, coastal areas of Ogun and Lagos states…..
It is sad and the earlier the government wants to correct it, the better. We are playing with fire. We can’t allow that to go on. The issues that they are addressing must not be neglected, and part of it is what I have talked about-restructuring of the federation.