Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who was the Deputy Chairman of the 2014 National Conference, speaks on President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, the ongoing agitation for restructuring and the way out of the growing tension in Nigeria, among other issues of national interest. BOLA BADMUS brings the excerpts:
THE APC government under President Muhammadu Buhari has been in office for the past two years, what is your view on how Nigeria has fared under the government based on the promises it made to the electorate?
It is an administration that is difficult to assess. It is difficult to assess because most of the time the president has not been on the seat and it has become evident in some of the things that I am going to say. Within a system, the president is a very critical actor in the sense that often, there are things that need to be done and everybody agrees that there are things that need to be done but it is really only the president that has what I would call the gratis, the status to do them, because of the position he occupies. So, even if those things are evident to the Acting President, the President of the Senate, the Speaker, House of Representatives, whoever it is, they individually or together don’t have the wherewithal to do it.
I mean, it is like look at the press and the editors there, but you wouldn’t equate the editor with the publisher. This is because the publisher is the one who can say ‘okay, I would take that risk, go ahead and do it. If anything goes wrong, it is my newspaper, I took the decision; an editor cannot take such decision.’ I mean there are some issues an editor cannot take that kind of decision, because doing so would mean he is toying with somebody’s life investments. So it’s kind of similar. That’s why it is difficult to assess the two years of the Buhari administration.
But they all promised to implement certain programmes of their party when they come into power and based on that people expect that they should focus on implementing those promises even without the president’s overriding control, because it is the party’s agenda.
No, it doesn’t work that way. I am a political scientist; none of the political parties in Nigeria actually meets the definition of a political party as such.
Why do you think this is so?
Because of the way they came into being. The kind of situation you are describing is where a party is formed from the foundation that brought together people with similar beliefs, similar agenda, a similar assessment of where we are, a similar assessment of where we should be going, a similar assessment of how we should get there. None of Nigeria ’s political parties is formed that way today, even from 1999. From 1999, all of them had always been a kind of alliance, not of ideology but by an alliance of the elite. It’s like taking different parts of a vehicle; get the mechanic, panel-beaters and other workmen to patch it here and there and so on. It’s not really a solid car, but it will move. What you have done is that you used this part from Volkswagen, you used that part from Mercedes, you used another part from Peugeot and welded them together. Yes, it looks like a vehicle, but it is not a vehicle in the real sense of the word and this is what we find with all our political parties.
I knew how the Action Group, how the NPC and NCNC were formed and how they operated. They were not funded by government. They were funded by membership subscriptions paid by members, including ordinary market women. A market woman would have her membership card, and she paid her subscription. This was where those funds came from until these parties funded by government came into being and they now needed more money than the former parties. So the market women, the vulcanisers, the school teachers had their investments in the party and you sold the party to them on the basis of the party’s manifestos- free education, free health, free this, free that. So you had a bond with the grassroots. It’s not like that anymore; I mean in the post-1999 political system that we’ve had.
But in spite of the agitations that the government has not done much to fulfill the promises it made to the people of Nigeria, the government has continued to celebrate itself. For instance, it recently celebrated that the country was out of recession. Do you share the view that Nigeria under this government has something to celebrate?
Have you known any government that runs itself down? None has ever done that, of course none. It will always find something to celebrate; it’s left to you the observer whether you agree with the government or not. If a government is lucky to get out of recession, even if getting out of recession is due to some factors which are not under the control of government, well you celebrate the luck, because you would get blamed in any case if it didn’t happen.
Are the various agitations currently going on in the country not looking strange to you as an elder statesman who has been around for a long time?
Strange, did you say? No. It is not strange to me because if you look at the history of Nigeria from the very beginning, and you study the aspiration of the different groups that went into making up Nigeria, you would find out that all groups had fears and they still have fears. All of them had fears that they would be marginalised. All groups in Nigeria had fears that they would be marginalised, but it is the content of the marginalisation that tended to differ. The North’s fear was based on the grounds that the South’s economic and educational development had put the North at a disadvantage and that they have to address that disadvantage because they don’t want that gap to be exploited to their detriment.
In the Southern Nigeria, there was the fear that the Northern Nigeria would use political domination to suppress South’s development until the gap can be closed. So you had these competing fears of marginalisation; each of the groups struggling for political dominance and that had been there. The British came to Nigeria and some of the British Colonial officers were honourable and neutral in trying to manage the competing fears, while others were not so honourable. Others took sides.
In fact, I remember that in London, the British Colonial Office said if you remove Nigerians from Nigeria and leave it to the colonial officers, there would be a Civil War fought by the colonial officers of the North versus the East, and of the East versus the West; that is the colonial officers would fight one another up to the level of a civil war. Yes, the people then became committed to where they were posted. They intended to see the validity of the political aspiration of the people where they were posted and it has been like that since the British came in, so the restructuring the British then attempted to do from the time they came into Nigeria had been influenced I would say by these competing fears of marginalisation, competing fears of domination.
So there was nothing they could do to take away the fears?
Well, they tried because if you look at the Richards Constitution or the Littleton Constitution at times, it veered towards unitary form of government and when that didn’t work, they veered towards federalism. They were experimenting and the matters were not helped by the fact that the Nigerian elite itself did not have a unanimous view on the way forward. So, the British then had to seek to bring Nigerians, the elite to a conference table to try and work out a consensus, saying since you didn’t agree amongst yourselves as to the way forward, let us see how we can manage the differences you have and see whether they can come out with a system, that at least, you can all sign on to. And that is why I keep on saying that it is not a true reflection of Nigerian political system to make it sound like, one, restructuring is a new thing. It isn’t a new thing. The British had always restructured Nigeria. They would try one system and when that didn’t work or they felt that it had achieved its purpose, they would add to it or make an amendment. And that’s what has been happening, that’s why we kept having different constitutions under the British until we had the Ibadan Conference in 1950, which was where the Nigerian elite, the political elite met for the first time and it was there that some agreements were reached, some consensus were made. One doesn’t need to go into that, but the first point I am trying to make is that the demand or agitation for restructuring is not new and it shouldn’t be presented as being new, because there is a danger in that when it is presented as being new, those who think they have something to lose would pull back to wonder what is this all about?
Number two, restructuring would always take place because it has always been an ongoing exercise. Look at the British, there is a struggle between the British, the Scots, the Welsh for restructuring of Great Britain. How many centuries have they been at it? It still continues. Then go back to the holy Roman Empire, the restructuring of Europe itself to what you have today. And even up till today, the British said they want to get out. That is another manifestation of restructuring of Europe, an unsettled issue. And even within Europe itself, in Spain, the Catalans are now saying they want to hold a referendum in their region for independence, but the central government in Madrid is saying no, it is unconstitutional. That is the struggle for restructuring in Spain, so it is an ongoing thing. It is not a once-and-for-all panacea. It would never be a full stop, it would be a semi-colon, because whatever it is you agree on today would throw up some of its own contradictions and that is why you have the Independence Constitution, you have the 1963 Constitution, you have the 1966 Decree 34, the Ironsi Decree; then you have series of decrees by General Gowon, which finally then led to creation of 12 states. They started with three regions, and then there were four regions later. Then in 1967, we had 12 states and now we have 36 states. So, the struggle would not end among those who are agitating for restructuring and those who are opposing it. Reaching the same perception is not a once-and-for-all exercise. They may then start to read from the same page, trying to talk about what are the issues that are creating problems today that we need to address. In five, 10 or 15 yeas’ time, our children would be faced with other issues. So that’s why I say that it is absolutely essential that the debate on restructuring takes into cognisance the fact that Nigeria has always been involved in restructuring exercise, it’s not new.
We run a federal constitution, but those who are agitating for restructuring are asking that we go back to true federalism. What do you think is amiss?
The answer to that is simple, go back to the 1960 Constitution; the Independence Constitution. Look at the issues or the subjects that were put on the Exclusive List and the Concurrent List then and compare with the constitution that we have now, you will discover a lot of the issues that were left to the regions have now been transferred to the Exclusive List.
So that is why the constitution we have now is not federal in nature?
That is why I said the constitution is not truly federal and you have to concede to that, it is not rocket science. That is why I said put the two constitutions side by side and you would see the argument that’s being made.
Secondly is the issue of what I would call economic federalism, concerning who controls what percentage in terms of budgetary allocation or what others would call resource allocation. Obviously, in the 1960 Constitution, because a lot of issues were left to the regions, they had to be given the resources to manage those issues, but these issues were then transferred to the Federal Government. The Federal Government then got hold of the economic pot and allocated to itself now a substantial part of the economy resources. So, if you are now going to have a reverse transfer, if subjects being taken off the Exclusive List are now being transferred to the states, then of course, financial allocation and the percentages would have to be worked upon so that the percentage controlled by the Federal Government would go down and the percentage given to the states would now have to increase.
It is not as easy, I mean it’s not going to be that easy; there are complexities. Of course, a federal system of three to four regions and one central government is a totally different kettle of fish from a federal system of 36 states and a central government because of the capacity to execute.
Let’s say in 1960, we could have had four railway system provided they all abided by the regulation laid down by a central body as regards the gauge and the equipment that they would use. So they could have a Northern Regional Railway System, a Western Regional Railway System and Eastern Regional Railway System and it didn’t mean cutting off from one another. It’s like flying. You fly into all other ports all over the world, but the regulations are the same, you know. When you are communicating with the Control Tower, the instruction the Control Tower is giving to you is going to be the same as the instruction you are giving if you are going to land in India or if you are going to land in Nigeria or trying to land in any other country. So it doesn’t mean that you would all have one airplane or one system, it doesn’t mean that. But there would be regulation you would all to agree to.
But now, you cannot talk about 36 railway systems and that’s even where some of the advocates of restructuring are also talking about, saying setting up of a regional system is almost going back to the 1960 system because of the capacity to execute even what would be devolved. So, it’s not that simple and straightforward. So to me, this is what restructuring is all about—transfer of some of those subjects that can be better handled at the state level and of course transfer of resources to the states to empower them to enable them to deliver.
The APC government promised to restructure the country, but it appears to no longer be willing in spite of agitations being loud across the regions. Giving that government has to lead the way in this matter, what do you think is the way out?
I think you are absolutely correct in identifying the role of the Federal Government as being critical in all these agitations. It is good and it should be encouraged for each region or each nationality or each group to come up with its own list of demands. You know I started this interview by saying that from the time the British came in, each group had had its own fears and till today, those fears are still there. As I said, some are manifesting themselves in terms of domination, some manifesting themselves in terms of fears of marginalisation; those fears are still there.
I am not worried about groups, regions coming up to concretise their own demands, at least when you know what the other side wants and the other side knows what you want, that’s a first good step in looking for a solution. Where the role of the Federal Government becomes critical is this; if you look at the last attempt to amend the constitution by the National Assembly, you would find out that the country is divided basically into two. The Northern part does not want restructuring because it fears that it will lose its privileges while the Southern part wants restructuring because it wants to regain some of the areas that it lost since 1966 up till now. The North needs to be persuaded that it has to meet the South in re-approaching the 1960/1963 Constitution, that the way and manner things are going, the country is moving to the verge of instability if these issues are not addressed.
So, you also share the view that Nigeria might cease to exist if the government fails to restructure it?
I wouldn’t go that far, what I would say is we may inadvertently be drifting towards another civil war. Nobody gives up privileges easily; I mean the Yoruba say oju boro ko la fi ngbomo lowo ekuro. It would be unnatural to expect that the North would give up the privileges of control of all these issues unless it is persuaded that it will not jeopardise its own existence by giving up some of these subjects, by allowing some of these subjects to be transferred from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent or Reserved List. The North needs to be persuaded that it will not jeopardise its own existence, so it is an existentialist issue for the North and that is why you will then understand why I said that the position of President Muhammed Buhari is very critical in this whole matter, because he is respected in the North; he is trusted by the North. Right now, to me, he is the only person in this country who can persuade the North to embrace restructuring. This does not mean, and I want us to get this very clear, that the North has to accept the total agenda of the South. It means it has to prepare to meet the South halfway.
There are subjects on the Exclusive List that are not germane, that are not critical to the North’s existence that the North can give way to and as a gesture of goodwill say that we recognise the grievances of the South, we are ready to meet you halfway. We are ready to give up on this and on that and then we can continue the negotiation, but we would start off with this. Only Buhari can persuade the North to do that. That is why the issue of trust comes in. They trust him that he wouldn’t send them down the river for political reason; there is no other person in Nigeria with all due respect.
I am aware that Atiku has embraced restructuring; I am aware that IBB, my former boss, has embraced restructuring and advocated it. Probably, I should expect for the same reason that if we don’t handle this issue very carefully, we are looking for political disaster, national disaster. But it is only Buhari, not because he is the president, but I say because of the position of trust he occupies in the North, who can persuade the North to make them sit down and say let us have a consensus on issues we would be prepared to make a movement on. It is an elite thing, it is not going to be done on the streets or the market place like Dugbe or Kano Market place or Oyingbo Market. If the Nigerian elite get together at a conference and tell the country that we’ve reached a consensus on 40 out of 100 issues, let us now move on from that, you will see that the tension in the country would come down.
But the position we are now in is where the North says no to restructuring and the South says yes to restructuring and it thus means we are digging ourselves into fixed position from where it may prove difficult to move forward. It’s like the problem now between the United States and North Korea; it’s becoming an ego thing, who blinks first? So, we’ve got to persuade both the North and South to move from it is either this or nothing to we are prepared to give way on this, we are prepared to accept this and then we would move on in future to other issues. But this can only come about if we are ready to talk to each other and not at each other. You know we cannot be screaming on the pages of newspapers; that will get us nowhere.
In 2014, the North was ready to sit at a National Conference with the South where most of the issues were discussed and solutions offered,but what has changed in 2017 that the North is no longer ready to dialogue on restructuring? Is it not the same North?
No, fear is fear. The North was not happy about the composition of the 2014 Conference and they said so, but it has to do with this issue of dominance or not dominance and we continue to deceive ourselves about the figures of population in Nigeria. We continue to deceive ourselves about how many people are in the North, how many people are in the South? It’s both a technical issue and a political issue. It shouldn’t be difficult to know how many we are in this country; technology has gone a long way beyond counting one by one, common. With satellite up there, we have the parameters, they can tell how many you are but from day one, we’ve not been able to know how many we are in this country. From day one, it has been a political issue. So in 2014, the North insisted that the number of delegates allocated to them did not reflect the size of their population and therefore, whatever decisions that came out of that conference would stand against them. So, they took part in that conference under protest. Fair is fair, they took part in that conference under protest and now that they have the opportunity to derail the decisions taken at the conference, they are using the opportunity. So, it is not that anything has changed, it’s just because they are now in a position in control of the Federal Government to block the implementation of what came out of that conference. So it is about all these things we’ve been talking about, fears of domination, fears of marginalisation. All these played out in 2014; it is playing out now, which is why you then go back to talk about the way forward. The way forward is: We need to sit down and reach a consensus that we are all going to be losers if we cannot reach a consensus. I have said it, I have said it in several places, I will say it here again, the only constitution that we have and which all our leaders agreed to was the 1960 Constitution, not even the 1963 Constitution. This is because by 1963, both the NCNC and NPC had already conspired to destroy the Action Group in the West. So the 1963 Constitution was a mere reflection of the dominance of the North and the East, but the 1960 Constitution reflected the consensus agreed to by our leaders. So if anybody really wants to help this country and wants to be sincere and honest, we have to go back to the 1960 Constitution. I am not saying we should duplicate the 1960 Constitution, you cannot duplicate 1960 in 2017, the world has moved on and Nigeria has moved on. The constituents, factors have changed, but if you know where you are coming from, it helps a lot to know how far and in what direction you need to move to avoid crisis. So I am not saying we should go and dig up the 1960 Constitution and implement that in 2017, no. But it’s a yardstick of what our leaders agreed to, it’s a yardstick and that yardstick could be very effective in providing guidelines as to where we should be going and how far we need to go.
Then finally, I have talked about the critical position of the president. We are not going to persuade the president by Akinyemi granting newspaper interview. You could write the most beautiful editorial, you could have 10 conferences, all these would not persuade the president. Number one, you need to persuade people who are close to him, people who have his hears, you have to persuade them of the danger of a recalcitrant position. Those are the people who would then go and talk to him to say you need to change the body language, you need to change the position, you need to persuade the North of the need to make concession. That is absolutely critical. It is not a question of 2019; it is not a question of APC manifesto, the president would need to be persuaded. It is after the president must have been persuaded then we can be talking of the party, the National Assembly and all the other people and then all the other factors would come into being.
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