Igbo want a united, equitable Nigeria —Abaribe, chairman South-East Senate Caucus
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe is the chairman, South-East Caucus in the Nigeria Senate. A three-time Senator and former Deputy Governor of Abia state, he declares in this interview with Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, that the Igbo want a united and equitable Nigeria where the rights of everyone are respected.
Nigeria is 57 today, how will you rate the journey so far?
I can say that the journey has not been very smooth and good for us. Where we are today and the divisive tendencies we see in Nigeria today, one would not have expected that at 57, we would still be talking about mundane issues of ethnicity, of how to feed, how to bring development and infrastructure. I would have expected that given the promise of Nigeria even at the end of the civil war, given the promise that we had, that we had been far much ahead countries that were the same time, the same place with us: India, Indonesia, Malaysia and so forth, and which have so far outstripped us in terms of development, in terms of taking care of their people, in terms of moving people out of poverty. Even China, if we look at China, at a point in 1970, our external reserves were higher than that of China. If we look at where we are today, China now has the largest external reserves in the whole world. Even though they have a larger population of more than a billion, yet they are able to find their way. So, any objective look at Nigeria will say that rather than progressing, we seem to take one step forward and two steps backwards.
Having been ahead of countries like China and others, where did we miss it?
I think we missed it at the level of leadership and let me explain what I mean. At the level of both leadership recruitment and leadership application to duty, our leadership recruitment mechanism has been faulty. It throws up people who do not put Nigeria first. It tends to throw up people who use Nigeria as their own personal fiefdom and when it throws them up that way, what we now see is a Nigeria that is serially abused by those put in charge and in trust for Nigeria.
At the level of implementation, I will now say application of leadership. What we see is where people always put their own interest first before they put the country’s interest. We can look at the various agencies in Nigeria and we can take just two examples, Ethiopian Airlines and Nigerian Airways. At the point which Ethiopian Airlines had three aircraft and also Emirate had about three aircraft, Nigeria had 28 aircraft. Today, Nigerian Airways doesn’t even exist and Emirates the other day talked about their 380 planes, same thing with Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian Airlines has grown so much that we are now inviting Ethiopian Airlines to come and help us manage ours.
The same thing, let’s put Nigerian National Shipping Lines, which means we were a shipping country. We had 26 ships, sea-worthy vessels. Today, we have zero. This was not because the country didn’t invest in those things. It was simply a failure of leadership, where people who were put in charge of those things simple converted them to their own use and made sure that our patrimony was their own patrimony. They converted it; they didn’t do well with it and the rest of us are paying penalties for that. So, anybody who has to do any shipping in Nigeria, it amounts to capital flight. So, we can go on and on. There are just too many examples to show and it is purely and squarely what Chinua Achebe said, a failure of leadership.
But some people sometimes say, maybe the problem is the way the constitution is.
No. the reason why people want to change the constitution is so that you can curb the excesses of the leadership. Maybe 80 to 90 per cent of our problems comes from a failure of leadership. People are responsible to themselves and their families. But they forget one thing: if this country implodes and you become a stateless citizen, you don’t have any country called Nigeria anymore, all those your acquisitions will fall by the way side. Of course anyone who goes to Syria today and all those images that we see coming out of those countries, of totally bombed cities, those places were also habitations for people. But today you look at it and you see what you will call the worst in humanity.
You are a lawmaker and people will say the legislature also has a role to play in this issue and leadership question. Aren’t you or the parliament also guilty of the problems?
I have not absolved the legislature or myself of it. When I talk of leadership, I’m also part of it. So, what it means is that each and every one of us in different ways have failed the country. The holy book says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and we can now say that most Nigerian leaders. Some of us try very much, but we try against very difficult odds to be sure that we make a country that anybody can be proud of. The efforts are there. The results are also there. The things that also happen are there. We can see what has happened because of the complacence and complicity of the legislature to what goes on there. So, what is happening today is that when there is effort by us as legislators to make things right, the executive turns around and tries to portray us as fighting against the interest of the country. It is done deliberately by the executive, demonising us to make sure that we don’t curb their excesses.
The problem of development, many will say is at the heart of the ongoing campaign for restructuring, devolution of powers and all that. Will you say because the structure is not working, restructuring will do the magic? I think that restructuring is a euphemism in one way of making the union a bit more efficient. There are different schools of thought on how to go on the question of restructuring. But when you say it is development, I really don’t see it so. What I see really at the heart of this whole thing is a dysfunctional union that is based on the sharing of oil money and everybody thinks they have to find a different way of sharing oil money and that is it. I’m of the opinion simply that we are living in the past if we think that oil money will continue. We think that in the next 10 years, we would not be at this stage. It’s a knowledge based economy that will be best for each and every one of us.
Do you support the need to recalibrate the structure of this country or rework the union?
Precisely. I fully support every effort that will be made to make sure that things are not left to go the way they are because if we leave it this way, it will not augur well for the future for Nigeria. We can also list all manner of things. But I think that basically, you can situate what people want in two ways. Some people want a going back to the regions and that in going back to the regions, you can now use the new regional structure so to say, which is the six zone structure. But then you will also run into the problem of what type of government will now be in which regional structures. There is also the risk of putting another layer of bureaucracy in the country. So, some people want a far more efficient union in which the states themselves will be the federating units and then the states can work. It’s something that you get from negotiation. It’s something that you get by talking to each other. It’s something that you get by trying to ensure that you sit at a table actually work out a solution. I believe that there is nothing that when you sit down and put heads together that you are not going to work out a solution.
That also brings us to the question of IPOB and the crisis that it has thrown up. You are one of the people that have insisted that declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation is wrong. Does that mean you are giving support to IPOB?
That’s not what it means. What it means is that we don’t think that merely by agitating and saying we want a different structure for the country even if it is the extreme of trying to say we are going to take our own country and that makes you a terrorist. The basic things that are in the Act that makes one a terrorist is so clear. The IPOB doesn’t fit into those criteria.
Let me just put on a humorous aside, as deputy governor, I was the first deputy governor that they tried impeachment on. One of the very curious things about that impeachment that was tried on me by the legislature at that time in Abia State was instigated by the governor, when we now said what is the evidence in which you are trying to impeach me, they said that I attempted to steal. They didn’t say I stole anything. They said I had the intention to steal and that I have planned to steal with somebody and the person now came to tell them. So, you could see that I was going to be impeached for a none offence – an intention. That’s the kind of thing that we see with this same IPOB matter. Seriously speaking, we asked for the evidence for IPOB; what did we see? What was the evidence? Every evidence points to the fact that they intended to do this; they intended to do that. So, the best way to stop an intention is to put a very serious tag like terrorism on them? We are just joking in this country. We think that when people wake up and formulate these ideas and things, you would have expected that saner heads will prevail to say wait a minute, let’s look at this matter again. But people didn’t. All that we just saw was a rush to judgment and the South-East senators said no, we do not believe that this was the best way to go.
You are the chairman of South-East Caucus; so exactly what does the South-East want from Nigeria? You people are thriving in different parts of the country.
The South-East wants a union that is fair to everybody. We want a union that makes sure that there is equal opportunities to all parts of this union. We want a union that you can be proud to go outside and say I’m a Nigerian, not that you are a Northern Nigerian, Eastern Nigerian or you are an Arewa Nigerian. That is not what we want. The South-East is committed to the clamour for restructuring, for a reassessment of how this union has been brought about. The South-East wants a stop to this feeding-bottle mentality where every month we go to Abuja to get our milk and where the international oil prices rise, the milk is bigger and where the prices fall, the milk is smaller and so forth. We think that giving states or whatever federating units an opportunity to do what they can do best will help every parts of this country. Nigeria can be the bread basket of Africa and the world. Nigeria can be anything.
At the Chatham House lecture recently, the President of Ohaneze made a very graphic illustration that is also apposite for all Nigerians to consider; that you have Netherlands which is a country whose space is less than Niger State, which is just one state and is much bigger than Netherlands. The Netherlands exports agricultural products – about $180 billion and about one third of it is just flowers. So, you could see that potential for what we can do in Nigeria is there and it is the fact that we don’t want to realise our potential that is causing all of us to want to scramble for that little things that is coming from oil that is actually now a dwindling asset, because countries have now decided that they will now go electric and stay away from fossil fuel. We are going to start getting less and less demand for our fuel. Our biggest purchaser of fuel before used to be United States. Today, United States doesn’t buy any fuel at all from us. Immediately they started getting shale oil, they didn’t need us. If other people don’t need us again, what do we do with this our oil and the rest of us? So, if we don’t change the structure to now take on all the things that will make us a much better nation, we are just looking for disaster.
What do you say to people that consider the National Assembly as a drain on the economy, with the claim that they collect jumbo pay, and that Nigeria cannot afford their pay?
I think they are just misinformed. National Assembly’s budget is less than two per cent of the national budget. We do not see how two per cent or so will constitute a drain. Assuming that you remove two per cent, you still have 98 per cent. The problem of this country is not caused by whatever is going on in the National Assembly and I’ve told you where we are going to locate this problems. We are going to locate it precisely at the failure of leadership. It is this failure that now leads people to start looking for excuses, especially Federal Government officials. When they run out of excuses, they want to say oh these people, that person or whatever. We say no; face your job. Face the right thing. Do the right thing. Work according to the ethos that you swore an oath to, not just sit there and be throwing out excuses. We hear all they say about jumbo pay, but we don’t want to engage people because it’s a fruitless exercise. There was no National Assembly under the military. Was there no corruption under the military? Did we not have all these problems under the military? So, you could just see that some people are merely not thinking.
You stood surety for Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB, when he was released from Kuje prison. Just recently, one of the spokespersons of the president said that the man cannot be located, that they should ask you to locate him…
Let’s just say that we are not going to reduce ourselves to back forth with spokespeople of the presidency. They are entitled to their own opinion. The court says that Nnamdi Kanu should appear on the 17th of October. Now, on the 11th to the 14th of September, the military went storming his place, a clear one month before he was supposed to be due in court. So, if somebody is supposed to be due in court and you didn’t wait for him to show up in court, then you go and storm his place and now nobody knows where he is; we don’t know whether they killed him. We don’t know whether they detained him, then somebody wakes up and now says go and call him. Well, I think when we get to that bridge, we will cross it, because I will only be dealing with the judge before whom emanates that stipulation.
So you didn’t believe the IPOB thing was going out of hand?
The point really is that we had discussed with them. The South-East governors had discussed with them and had even scheduled a second discussion with Kanu and his leadership on the 15th of September. So, if there were all those series of discussions, they were leading to one thing: we were getting them to agree to certain stipulations about where this nation is supposed to go and I will also say that they were very amenable to our suggestions and we were all looking forward to resolving this issue before this imbroglio of military going to storm that place and then declaring them a terrorist organisation and so truncating in its entirety, the discussions that were ongoing. I’m telling you this for the benefit of the public that the leadership of the South-East, both Ohanaeze, the governors, Senate caucus, the House caucus, the other groups within were all having discussions and everything was aimed at let’s get sustainable and also development in our area and this whole thing now erupted and, of course, working from the answer to the question. You declare somebody a terrorist and then you now turn around and say I’m going to court to do the right thing. You don’t declare people terrorists before you go to court. You should have gone to court and laid all your facts and your claims and let the court now make a stipulation. But now, you have tied the hands of the court. What would you expect the judge to do?
The claim was that South-East leaders allowed IPOB agitations to fester and that the elders lost control of the youth.
The elders didn’t lose control of anything. I told you that there were discussions up till the moment they went to do that military operation. You know when they say leaders of the East allowed agitations to fester, the leaders of the East are not police. The leaders of the East are not SSS. So, if they were going out of hand, all those agencies had a way of handling the situation. From our interactions with the police, the police never said that they were overwhelmed. The police never said that this thing has gone out of hand and then invited the military to come. The military actually said they were doing an exercise; they didn’t say they were invited by the police for something that had gone out of hand. An exercise which was supposed to start on September 15 and then some people moved in by the 11th, four days before. And, of course declared some people terrorists, then turned around again and said actually, it was because we wanted to do an exercise. You could see that some elements in this country just think that the rest of us are also people who do not think. We actually have some thought processes and, as far as we are concerned, the timeline in all the actions taken do not tally. If the military says that we are going to do an exercise and the exercise is going to start on the 15th and then you go and declare somebody a terrorist on the 14th, then the excuse you give to the nation is that it was as a result of our exercise which hadn’t started, that we now use to make you a terrorist. I think they should really go and work on the explanation angle again, because people don’t believe them. The problem really for a nation is when institutions that are revered by the public begin to say things. People will lose confidence in those institutions. That is when you really have a big set of problems, except if somebody says that the South-East is no longer part of Nigeria.
We heard of windows of discussions with the government, the South East Senators and the presidency and all that. Is there really any avenue that you are exploring for peace?
We are exploring all avenues. We are talking to everybody. The Senate also agreed that the Senate will take all measures and all actions that it can use to ensure that it brings these agitations everywhere to a close.
There was a report that your colleagues queried you during the closed session of the Senate last Tuesday over your comments on IPOB?
No that’s not true. My colleagues didn’t query me. Actually, in the Senate, we run a collegiate system. Every senator is equal because we all represent equal numbers of our constituents. When people don’t have enough information, it’s our obligation to feed them with information. So many senators had heard what happened; information had flowed. Social media was awash with all manner of things; some of them fraudulent; some of them misleading; some of them downright provocative. So, there was a need for us to say this is what really happened and that’s what we did with our colleagues. We provided information to them and it was that information that guided the Senate to now make the declaration that the Senate will seek all means and avenues to bring peace to Nigeria.
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