Economic hardship is pushing Nigerians to the precipice —Ofehe, N/Delta activist

Comrade Sunny Ofehe, the CEO/Founder of Hope for Niger Delta Campaign was a governorship aspirant in the general election in Delta State on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in 2019. He speaks with EBENEZER ADUROKIYA on some pertinent issues raised at the recent meeting of northern leaders. Excerpts:

 

Northern leaders recently met in Kaduna where they accused the EndSARS protesters of seeking to dismember the country. What is your opinion on this?

On the accusation of the EndSARS protesters by the Northern elders that the protesters are seeking to dismember the country, I consider this accusation preposterous and lacking any iota of merit. This presumption is rather a baseless accusation. We must remember that the matter of SARS and Police brutality in the country has been a public discuss for long time.

There is hardly any Nigerian today that has not experienced some form of police brutality including people from the Northern part of the country. It shouldn’t surprise anyone and we must not play any form of politics with it. Like I said earlier, it’s a matter that affects us all. The sad reality is that successive governments have failed to take a proactive action to end police brutality. So, the recent actions from them towards innocent citizens generated public anger that led to the recent violent protests across the country. Though, I must admit that some of the protests turned violent with wanton destruction of public and private properties and looting.

This is usually expected when hoodlums hijack or infiltrate any peaceful protests. The protests were not targeted at any part of the country, as the composition of persons that took part in the protests, cut across all the geographical and ethnical section of the country including the North.

We saw protesters from all tribes, religion and varying age groups coming together in one of the most sophisticated form of peaceful protests not seen in any part of the world before. Despite being peaceful, people came together to show the world that we can be our neighbour’s keeper. It was more like a carnival with sharing of foods, drinks and medical kits. To brand such a peaceful and well-coordinated action by the protesters dismembering of the country by a supposedly elite group of Northern leaders undermines the protesters’ rights to peaceful assembly. People have the right to demonstrate peacefully and government should respect international law and let them do so.

 

They also called for censor of the social media. What is your perspective on this?

It is a fundamental human right for people to gather to celebrate or to air grievances, in public spaces and online. The UN Human Rights Committee, whose experts monitor how countries implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights advise that governments cannot block internet networks or close down any website because of their roles in organising or soliciting a peaceful assembly. Governments cannot prohibit protests by making generalised references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence, by using the reason to censor the social media.

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, extends to digital activities, this protection of the right to peaceful assembly extends to remote participation, including online assemblies. Though, activities of social media users can actually be alarming. Fake news spreads quickly with the social media which is not peculiar to Nigeria alone.

We must admit that some stories and pictures shared on the EndSARS protest were founded on falsehood. These actions by a few unscrupulous groups must not be allowed to diminish the overwhelming powers and advantages of social media usage. The right to peaceful assembly extends to online activities. Therefore, the governments should not block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies. Some tyrannical countries have censored social media activities in their countries but it never helped in anyway. Remember, the issue of social media censorship has already been taken care of, when Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected the bill at the Senate.

 

The Inspector General of Police and the Senate President also attended that regional meeting. What in your opinion are the implications of a security chief and the nation’s Number 3 citizen attending a regional meeting?

Let us look at it this way: both the Inspector General of Police and Senate President are from the Northern part of the country. Considering the caliber of personalities attending such event, it is not out of place for both parties to attend if invited. It is usually the practice to invite dignitaries from one’s area to attend such forum. Don’t forget that the Presidency also requested cabinet Ministers to go back to their various states and meet with their constituent at the peak of the protest. So, there is nothing wrong with their attending such meeting. Though some persons from the North seem not to agree with disbanding SARS, but there is no intentional bias to take side with one’s people as against other regions.

 

Are you not scared that the police are virtually on strike and the president is not ordering them back to work?

The EndSARS protest has two dimensional effects on the Nigerian Police. The first is that it exposed the police brutality suffered by many Nigerians while at the same time exposing the poor condition suffered by our brave police officers. At the beginning of the protests the police were drafted to maintain peace and order while at the same time protecting private and public properties until the protests were hijacked by hoodlums, the policemen and their stations became target of attacks. We even saw how prisons were taken over and prisoners freed in some states across the country. In the aftermath of the protests turning violent, the police officers became victims. There were horrible videos and pictures circulated on social media showing police officers being beaten and some even burnt alive.

When you have a situation were your work stations become target of arson and officers wearing uniforms are attacked on the streets, then you have to take precautions.

The precautions some of the officers have taken is to go to work not wearing the uniform. This has made most police officers absent on the street. Though, the whole protest is for the overall benefit of the police. The President has ordered a judicial review of what happened and most importantly has agreed to look into the welfare of police offices. Both arms of the National Assembly have also agreed to push for police reform and ready to approve meaningful police reform bill. As for the President not ordering them back to work, that has always been the man’s style of handling issues of National discourse. Calm and relax in the face of National outcry, this method applied by Mr. President doesn’t translate into taking sides. It is just a style of leadership approach adopted by him, though Nigerians do not seem to like it.

 

There are issues around IPOB causing unease in the South South, what is your take on their agitation and the method they’ve adopted?

The protest took more prominence in the South/South and South/West region of the country. IPOB agitation has been on for long, but their recent disturbance is taking advantage of the ENDSARS protest to drag the South/South region into sympathy with their cause. They wanted to impress the militants to probably take up arms and this is the hijacking the government is talking about, that the genuine cause by the ENDSARS protestants has been hijacked.

Everyone who knows me and what I stand for can testify to the fact that I am a strong proponent of a united Nigeria. In our nation’s diversity, I see a lot of strength and that has been shown in the cause of our nascent history.

What Nigerians need to benefit economically from our diversity is patriotic leadership. Countries like China, Russia and India are global economic players because of the population and diversity. These are part of the many characteristics that makes up Nigeria. So, we must not allow the greed of politicians and agitators divide us with ethnicity and religion. The June 12th Presidential election that offered our country a Muslim-Muslim ticket, yet we all came together to make it the freest and fairest election in our history is the hallmark of our strength. Therefore, I am not in support of the IPOB agitation and the violent method they adopt. Self-determination as the IPOB agitation can be categorised as the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order. As we know self-determination is a core principle of customary international law, which is also recognised as a general principle of law, enshrined in several international treaties. However, the general approach must be peaceful and diplomatic.

 

There are fears that the country may be heading towards a major conflict. What in your opinion can be done to avert this calamity?

On the issue of the country heading towards a major conflict. YES! People are now becoming more paranoid, especially as current economic hardship seems to be more prevalent on the people. Now they are taking it on their elected representatives in various tiers of government.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in a report about poverty and inequality from September 2018 to October 2019, said 40 per cent of people in Nigeria live below the poverty line. In Nigeria, the poverty can be traced to low or declining level of economic growth, income inequalities, unemployment, corruption, bad governance, diversion of funds into non-developmental projects, fund embezzlement, inappropriate macroeconomic policies, inadequate endowment of human capacity. There are structural issues bothering on governance and system failure as well. These issues should be looked into and addressed as a matter of urgency.

Issues such as the large remuneration given to government officials, agitations of restructuring, resource management, devolution of power to the Federating units, State and regional policing vis-à-vis true Federalism and recommendations of past national conferences should be looked into. We saw a lot of looting during the demonstrations and this can be attributed to high rate of poverty among the people in the country. Once the government can address these issues I have mentioned, the benefits will be enjoyed by the people and the impending calamity can be avoided.

 

How do you assess the war against terror in Nigeria against the backdrop of the recent rescue of an American by the United States’ Special Forces on the soil of Nigeria?

In all honesty, I am personally disappointed in the way the country have managed the war against terror. It is very disturbing when we hear how the Boko Haram terrorist group have over ran our military in the North East. We should not forget that the Nigerian military has had a very good reputation internationally and our strength and capacity made us the pride of Africa. The Nigerian military have led so many international peace missions in countries like Liberia and Sierra-Leone. To now see that we have not been able to declare full victory over our home terror group calls for national concern.

There is no sincerity in fighting the war against terror in Nigeria. There are connivance of certain people at the top with the terrorists and sabotage of government sincere efforts in fighting terror. Government should therefore do more in the area of intelligence gathering so as to outsmart these terrorists. Modern warfare now uses intelligence and unmanned drones to flush out enemy targets, our fight against Boko Haram should shift to this direction. The United States successful operation in Nigeria soil point to that direction, and this is one approach being adopted in modern day war against terror. So information gathering should be given more attention, as against moving troops to troubled zones, without proper fighting hardware and aerial backup.

 

Some people feel that Nigeria has never been as divided as it is presently. What or who do you think is responsible for this and how do we pull back from the brink?

Our country has never been more divided as it is today. This is the sad reality and it should give every Nigerian serious concern. As I earlier said, our diversity should be our strength and not divisive. Though the issue of division has always been there, however, the political class is more responsible in dividing the Nation further. Politicians have either played the ethnic or religious cards while seeking elective office. Rather than divide us with their rhetoric, they should use their campaigns and office to unite us as a people. Religious differences also play key role in this, but politics of concentrating more resources, developmental projects and appointments on one region, particularly where the President hails from to the detriment of other regions, contributes greatly in dividing the Nation. So, a fair resource allocation, even distribution of projects and carrying the whole country along on the issue of political appointments and employments will unite us. As the saying goes, injustice somewhere is seen as injustice everywhere.

 

Some people talk Resource Control, some talk Restructuring, some talk Separation while some feel the country is just fine as it is. Where do you stand here?

Resource Control, Restructuring, Devolution of Power etc are all elements of the Federal system of Government that we are professing to be practicing. However, what we practice is not true federalism, as too much power is still concentrated in the center. I strongly believe in true Federalism. Once we practice true federalism, every other mentioned elements like resource control, restructuring will be embedded in our day governance. Maybe then those who agitate for separation will embrace our new found system of governance. The journey to a prosperous Nigeria requires every one of us to work together in harmony. This way we can achieve the dreams of our founding Fathers.

 

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