Restructuring: Time no longer on Nigeria’s side —Olabode George

Former Deputy National Chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olabode George, speaks on the state of the country, its 60th Independence anniversary, declaring that it was high time the country return to real federalism. BOLA BADMUS brings excerpts:

 

Nigeria was 60 years on October 1. If you are to do an appraisal, would you say we are making progress as a country?

In the 50s, we had a constitutional conference. First we had Northern and Southern protectorates. The British looked at the economic gain for themselves, not for us.

They took note that they had more products they were looking for in the South and less in the North. Lord Harcourt, the secretary of the colonial office, was the chairman of that committee. He then recommended marrying the two protectorates together. He did not bother about the people, their cultures and their differences, their norms and their religious beliefs which are fundamental thing that will make a nation to be united. The report was submitted to Queen Victoria.

Lord Lugard was sent to manage this new colony. When he came, you know he had been here before. He saw the southerners as very arrogant and non-conformist. So, he had the bias when he landed and was looking at how best to manage the system. Centrally all South had two regions then, but only one unit called Southern Protectorate. The North was one region. If we don’t give precept, the background, the younger generation will not understand.

In the 50s when we had the constitutional conference, we had premiers in the West, North and in East. It was a system of government where there was devolution of power. Each area was able to manage their area and we had a Federal Government. The Federal Government was not as strong, but it was moderating some policies, military, foreign activities, and every premier was responsible for duties, including appointing ambassadors of the regions not Nigeria.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was in his 40s. I don’t know how old Sir Ahmadu Bello was at that time, but they were all young people. They were just bringing their experiences of life. They went through that until 1959 general election. Everybody managed their regions. Some regions developed faster than others, we saw the impact.

Then came 1960s when we had Tafawa Balewa as the prime minister and the regional premiers and all that. In 1960, we got independence, a nation was born and we started running the system. There is no perfect system, but it was a reasonable system.

After a series of coups, General Aguiyi Ironsi became the Head of State. I remembered his broadcast, he said there was going to be a unitary system of government, the whole Nigeria will be ruled as one. The major voice against this unitary system of government came from the North, condemning it, adding that we had ruled ourselves, how should we all gather and be taking order from one person?

It was as a result of that that people whipped up a lot of sentiment, and said no, we cannot agree. Meaning that we should go back to where we were, let the North rule themselves, we had had regions controlling themselves, no to central control, which is typical military formation.

When there was a counter coup in July, a lot of people were killed. When the dust settled again, people started asking questions, what happened? Yakubu Gowon became Head of State. I remember one of the first things he did was to create more states, to remove the anger of the minorities, who had been suffering under the heavy yoke of the majority. It was a brilliant thing he did.

After doing that, he also now adopted the unitary system of government we had argued against it, when you looked back now. I was in the military, but when you look back, can you blame them? If you are in a system, there are certain norms, there are rules, there are methodologies of management which are archaic in the military. What is archaic in the military is hierarchical system of government, top to bottom. So we were not surprised that he also adopted central military formation to govern the country.

We had the civil war and when it ended, the military continue to rule us. Many more states were created to satisfy some other smaller units from and the number went up to 12 states to 19 states and from 19 to 21 states, then 30 states, and latter 36 states. Up till now, people are still agitating they want more states.

In 1979, we went back into civilian administration and then it was no longer parliamentary system of government, it became presidential system of government and that presidential system centred the power on one man, the president of the country, and we tried it, it didn›t work.

At this point, I want us to look at a country like the defunct USSR when it was under Mikhail Gorbachev heavily militarised, you had no say. The order was dictated from the top, if you fall out of line, you can be executed. Come to Yugoslavia, I never knew many countries were in it. General Joseph Tito was the Head of State, a heavy general. The moment he passed on, countries like Croatia, Serbia and others attained their independence and they survived till today.

Take Czechoslovakia, I never knew they were different people, today the Czech are on their own. Look at Switzerland, the majority tribe are Swiss, we have the Dutch and yet others. We have the Italian side and the German side, with Zurich as the headquarters. They have never had any political crisis, even during the world wars. They stood there in the middle of Europe, not a single firing in that country. Why? They managed their economy on justice, fairness and equity. That is where we have this rotational headship. Headship is rotated among the French, German and the Italians, which is turn by turn Swiss model. They are still working, after the war everybody was running there, not a single firing because the system was acceptable to everybody.

Even the United Kingdom having existed as United Kingdom for 300 years, towards the end of the administration of Margaret Thatcher, there was so much noise about being overrun by the Scottish, the Welch and the Northern Island parliament. You can hardly find any prime minister from Scotland. You would have to work like hell, whether you are of Labour Party or Tories. Then they started the tribal party, Scottish movement, Welsh movement. When the thing was getting too much heated up, they came up with a concept called devolution. They have existed for 300 years.

What UK is running today, they have devolved power to the Scottish. They have their parliament, secretary of Scottish or whoever is the head which is equivalent to what we had as premier then. The Welch, the Northern Island are the same. The parliament in London is still there for the United Kingdom. There are still voices saying we should go further to break away. With this EU solution, they still have their problem, even having lived for 300 years.

Let us come back home. When General Abdulsalam Abubakar was handing over power to the civilian, the military intervention should be clear. It should be a short intervention because that is not our normal job. Abdulsalam came, promised to hand over power to the civilian, and in handing over the power, he came up with a constitution. The constitution is still the same like the one drafted in January 1968: power resides in the president, and circulates to the bottom. That is military set up.

I am a retired General, my position is that democratic dispensation, power comes from the people; the will of the people goes up, and whoever emerges at the up there will be the servant leader for the people. But we are still running it with one man taking decision. This system never works. It is not working, and it will never work. If I haven›t served on both sides, I wouldn›t have understood both. Military organisation cannot be run as a democratic organisation.

Under democratic arrangement, it is illogical, baseless and retrogressive to run a unitary system of government where directive is given from the top to down. That brings me to the question you asked, where are we at the age of 60? We are in a state of flux, on a platform that is wobbling. Why should we be like that? Let justice flow like a river. Let there be fairness in the land, the cacophony of voices will end. We want fairness under the law.

Once you are there, and you are found to surround yourself with members of your tribe, the other tribes are jealous. They wonder if they are not Nigerians. That is why we copied the American system of government. We copied, but don›t implement it to the letter. That is why there is so much tension that has brought about the grudge among tribes.

We must revisit this system of government we are running. There must be devolution of power to the states, or what some people call restructuring of the entire system so that we can be together. Yes, some states may be richer than the others. In the United States of America, we have very rich states, the state of California is the biggest and the richest state, and yet the sixth largest economy in the world. You should cut your coat in line with the available cloth. If you can›t make it, link up with the next state. There is no state in this country that God has not endowed with one resource or the other. But what they do is to throw up their arms, and at the end of the month because every resource go to the centre, and it (centre) starts to redistribute them based on population, land mass and using all kinds of criteria.

At 60, President Muhammadu Buhari has a duty, having served in the military, having fought in the civil war, to revisit the style of management we have now. We have this opportunity now from 2020 to 2023. He should go into devolution of power, restructure the country for the benefit of every Nigerian. That is task he must embark upon and get done before he leaves office.

 

Do we go for another round of constitutional conference or implement the resolution of the 2014 national conference convoked by former President Goodluck Jonathan?

First, I would like to congratulate late Justice Kutigi who was the chairman of the constitutional conference because there was no issue we did not debate openly. That is why I am so convinced about that report because every item was subjected to plenary session, debated and voted upon. So, why are we going to set up another committee and for what? That report is good enough. Let a committee go and work on it. If there are areas they think they should modify, ratify or whatever, we don’t need to start from zero level.

If you remember during the handover from former President Jonathan to President Buhari, he said the confab report was the most important document he is giving to Buhari. And when he (Buhari) got it, he put it in the archive. We are deceiving ourselves and time is not on our side again. Why are we pretending this thing is just falling from the sky? We are all in our 70’s, some have already got their boarding passes. It is only for God Almighty to call their flight and they have gone.

When one looks at the younger generation, what do we want to leave for them? In my graduating class almost 40 years ago, I got a job before I wrote my final examination. We were only eight in my class, the Department of Electrical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Lagos. Do you think it is possible now? That is the kind of level I am thinking we will bring our country to. Malaysia was in Nigeria to borrow our palm kernel, today they are number one in the world in the production of palm oil. So, what happened to our coal industry? The whites are moving away from petroleum. By 2030, they will be producing electric cars. What do we do with our petroleum? Time is not on our side.

 

The belief in some quarters is that restructuring has become a slogan by anybody seeking public office, and when they get to office, they don’t discuss it anymore. Your party, PDP that is clamouring for restructuring now, was in power for 16 years, why did it fail to restructure the country then?

When General Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over power, the ship of state was still wobbling. Would it have made any sense to start dabbling into the fact that the constitution is bad and we need to change it?

So, the first thing Obasanjo did was to form a national government. All political parties then nominated people as ministers as special assistants or advisers or whatever. It was a national government to try the constitution. We set up the Oputa Panel, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to find out where we were as a country. Rather than relying on rumours, we did that, it was open.

Having tried so many things from 1999, we had a national conference put up by Jonathan who had the guts to set it up and Nigeria was effectively represented. The flaws were objectively looked at and addressed. We are now saying please let us revisit the reports of the conference. Some said restructuring, that is reducing the power at the centre, some said devolution but whatever name they want to call it, what we are saying is that there is too much power concentrated at the centre and the power should be devolved to the states.

Every state has minimum of one resource they can survive on. If they can’t survive then they should join another state. There should be no free lunch. Look at local government administration, we soldiers created it. Having seen the other side now, Kano has 44 local government areas, Lagos that has the highest population has 20 local government areas. It is incumbent on every Nigerian in power to make sure that this country is stabilised and the platform is stable.

Look at Ghana, that small country sending our traders out of their country. I want to believe that the current managers of the system are listening. Can they guarantee the future? The future starts now and the history we are talking about is to bring out the mistakes of the past to educate the people to prevent a recurrence of such mistakes in the future. The argument should not be that because they (past rulers) did it that time, they (present leaders) will never progress.

Some Nigerians are saying restructuring must take place before the 2023 elections can hold. Do you subscribe to such?

Well, I wear two caps namely: that of the military and the civilian. In military camp, you don’t disagree with your Oga. That is the ethics. As a staff officer under Buhari, you look at things without bias or emotion, all you rely on is how will he like to be remembered? What will he want to be said about him? That is my advice.

On the civilian side, my position is that what has 2023 got to do with it? People will clamour for which region should produce the next president, and we continue with the same methodology. It is not working. We have three years now. Let us remodel our system of governance; let us reorganise the country. No doubt there is no perfect system, but at least we will be in a situation where everybody can say it is okay and willingly they will come out to vote and the people will be happy.

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