Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
Prof. Jerry Agada is a former Minister of State for Education and presently Chairman, Benue State Civil Service Commission. He believes the EndSARS protest was necessary, arguing that the youth who came out had every right to do so. In this interview, he spoke on other salient national issues including the already prolonged ASUU strike and the need for an Igbo presidency in 2023.
Recently, we all witnessed the EndSars protest which nearly brought the country to its knees. In your view, was the protest necessary in the first place?
As for the necessity of the protest, I’m not in a position to say that it is not necessary because it was done for a purpose and every Nigerian agreed with the purpose for which the protest took place. Did the things they were protesting about not happen? Take for instance, the issue of police brutality. Look at the way police were killing people all over the place. Somebody who doesn’t know what is happening about a situation would be killed just like that, and at the end of the day, no justice is secured because it’s just a kill and go. And sometimes, they will even boast that they will kill you and nothing will happen. That was the situation, not just in one place but almost all over the federation. People got fed up with it and in fact, when the problem started and they started mentioning different issues involving police brutality, didn’t you see pictures of people that they have killed unnecessarily? So, in that case, you cannot say the youths were wrong to have protested against police brutality because what they did was to draw attention to the ugly situation that was prevalent in the society. So, to me, it was necessary. Apart from that, the police brutality was just a step to so many other things that they were talking about. The long and short of it is good governance. As an average Nigerian, look at the system and the way the things are happening. The things the youths complained about; these are realities on ground. And that was why I was praising the government, most especially Mr. President because each time, he kept telling people that the youths have the right to protest over a situation like that as citizens of Nigeria. The only thing is government has heard their demands and government would make corrections. In fact, that was why he said that SARS should be immediately dissolved. And for me, I thought that was a very good step in the right direction and a step towards making changes in all those things that the youth were complaining about. But of late, all you hear is like a crackdown on the youths by government going to freeze accounts of those youths who were involved in one way or the other in the protests. That becomes a crackdown which is quite different from Mr. President’s position of looking at the issues. The president was saying well, what you are saying is true but we will now take steps to rectify them. So, ordinarily for me, I would have thought that that process of telling the youth that we know what you’re saying and we are making corrections should continue to go on until we reach a conclusive end. I was thinking that by asking states to set up various panels to look at all these issues was a way of bringing these things out so that at the end, we would say, all these things you were saying, these are the steps we are taking and we have come to the end of the matter. Instead, look at what is happening. The panel in Lagos for instance, is it continuing properly? Have the youths not withdrawn from membership of the panel? This is because of so many things; some of them because of frozen accounts, some of them because of other things. So, they said well, they thought they were participating in the panel so that at the end, justice would be served. But if this is the way it has turned out, they will not join the panel again. And by dissociating themselves from the panel, that panel becomes incomplete. In other words, a quorum will no longer be formed and it may take time before you can get another group of youths to come and replace them because the youth are all fighting for the same cause. So, for me, I was thinking that if the panels are going on like that, let us look at the issues that would help the panel to come out in the realization of whatever purpose for which they have been set up.
But, don’t you think the government is angry because of the level of destruction during the protest?
Who is not angry at the level of destruction during the protest? But are you telling me that it was the EndSARS protesters that did that destruction? Were they not doing this protest peacefully for some days before these hoodlums entered? I don’t know, but if you look at the coming of the hoodlums, who would have arranged for them to come and high-jack and disrupt the EndSARS peaceful protest? We saw how some lorry loads of people from somewhere with sticks coming to attack those who were genuinely protesting. At the time the genuine EndSARS protesters started, were there any destruction? It was when the hoodlums were introduced that you had those destruction. And I tell you, some overzealous people may think they can arrange that for the purpose of impressing the government, not knowing that the government is for even those hoodlums that participated in the destruction of all those things. If because of criticism government starts doing well, will that wellness or goodness not be to their advantage too? But they are looking at it as if it has become sectional or it has become North versus South and things like that. To me, I stand to be corrected but I don’t believe that the protesters introduced hooliganism into the whole thing. It was the hoodlums and whoever introduced them that know why they did that and they are the people to be blamed for the destruction.
Apart from police brutality that was the main cause for that protest, we also know that other issues such as bad governance, unemployment and so on also cropped up. Where do you think we have missed it as a nation?
It is this type of thing that we are talking about. We missed it because in Nigeria, unlike in some other countries, even Ghana here, governance are built around individuals rather than around institutions. Sadly, in our own case, it is the individuals that are even stronger than the institutions. In that case, where do you think correctness will come from? Take the issue of constitutional review or the electoral review for instance. All these reviews were for the purpose of setting things correctly so that during elections, certain obvious mistakes that have been noted will be corrected. These reviews were painstakingly done but at the end of the day, what came out of them? Because one individual was yet to put assent to the electoral review, it could not be brought into implementation in the last election. In that case, you can see that. The generality of the people have seen that if we do this thing this way, it will go this way. They finished all that one, just for it to be assented to and implementation will come, it could not be done because we have somebody on authority there.
Many are advocating for restructuring. What is your take on that?
You know, different people have different ways of looking at restructuring. Some people, once you mention restructuring, they would think you have come to say divide Nigeria into four or five and so on. That is not what we are saying. We are saying that the system needs to be restructured in such a way that power will be devolved in such a way that institutions become more powerful than individuals. That is a way of restructuring because the way our constitution is at the moment, unless you do that type of restructuring, there will continue to be problems. They will say no, it’s not according to the constitution. Constitution that was written for us by soldiers which we are implementing now. If you do restructuring, they will look at all those things. I was looking at one argument the other day on national resources. They talked about oil from the Niger Delta that proceeds are brought to the center for distribution to the various tiers of government and then somebody said what of Zamfara where they have a gold mine and the state has the authority to sell it maybe through the Central Bank or whatever and they would keep the money. That is one section of the country. If that is the case, why not restructure in such a way that all these things will be put in black and white so that people will see that if we have oil in this place, let the proceeds from the oil be distributed in such a way that some fractions may be taken to the center.
The Northerners seem not comfortable with restructuring. What do you think is their fear?
Well, you say the Northerners. The way things are happening unlike the olden days when some of us were growing up in the sixties, the days of Sardauna of Sokoto and the rest of them, the North was cohesive. Those days, Sardauna’s influence all the way from Sokoto, was felt at Otukpo and so on and so forth. That time, the predominant party in the North was Northern Peoples Congress, NPC. And you discover that everybody in this divide of the country were members. That was why North was strong because we were all doing things together. But as things started going, the North is divided. This time, we have our United Middle Belt congress and so on. So, for us to come and stand now and talk of the North, some of us feel that they don’t even look at us as Northerners. For me, in Benue here, I tell you that the average Northerner from the far North who thinks that he is the Northerner, looks at somebody from this side of Benue for instance as a non-Northerner and you are only being tolerated. So, you discover that the North is no longer as cohesive for somebody to come and stand today and say he is talking for the Northerners. You can’t find such a person now unlike in those days of Sardauna of Sokoto. If Sardauna talked, the North had talked and everybody is aware. Today, can you show me somebody who can talk on behalf of the North apart from talking for their own small advantage. For instance, a place like Plateau, is it not in the North? But it’s in the Middle Belt. Yet, the Plateau governor is the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum. So, you look at it that it is Northerners talking. And they will come out and say that the EndSARS protest is against the law. Is that your view? That is not the view of somebody like me from here. So, the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum was not speaking for somebody like me from here because that is not my view. I observed at that NGF meeting that my governor (Samuel Ortom) was not there and his deputy wasn’t there too. So, let those who claim to be Northern governors continue to do what they are doing but the truth is that they are not speaking for us. The question of saying the Northerners, it’s not the Northerners. It’s a group of people who know that they have a lot of advantages from the present configuration. If they’re against restructuring and we are all together here, what are they doing that is much to our advantage that we can say okay, these are our brothers, we must stick together and we cannot think of this and that.
So, in a nutshell, you are saying that the North is no longer as cohesive as it used to be?
Yes, that is why they’re afraid of restructuring because they will think that the Northern togetherness will be divided in such a way that that strength will no longer be there. Their belief is that the strength is in number and so, they want to hold everybody together to make sure that it is achieved. But if you are doing that, do something that can also impress your other adjourning areas so that all of you will be agreeing in what you are doing. I’m saying this from experience. Look at the way cattle and herdsmen used to harass us here in Benue. When we were crying about it, some people thought that we were against the North. In fact, I recently saw a statement where a Minister of the federal republic, during the EndSARS protest, advised the people to stop protesting because according to him, once they are protesting, they are protesting against the North or protesting against the Muslims. That becomes too wrong a generalization because if you look at that protest, you would find out that people from Sokoto, Kastina, Bayelsa and so on were not looking at themselves based on the states they come from; they were looking at the real issues in Nigeria. But then, our big men and our leaders want to come and introduce that one. They tell people that if you participate, you’re working against Muslims, you’re working against the North. That’s not correct.
2023 is just by the corner and people from different regions of the country are beginning to agitate for the presidency of the country. From your own perspective and based on the unwritten agreement in 1999, where do you think the president should come from this time?
As far as I’m concerned, any presidency that comes up that is not from the South East is not what I like. When I talk of South East, I’m talking of the Igbo. If you look at it, where have we not had the presidency from except from the Igbo extraction? Is it in the core North, the South West, South South, North West and even in the Middle Belt? During the military, you have all these heads of state and co from the Middle Belt. Is it because of the war? The war finished and at the end of the day, we said there was no winner, no vanquished and there was this reintegration and so on. So, in that case, what is wrong in somebody from the South East emerging as our president? If you talk about competence, I want to tell you that every part of this country has competent people to serve as president of this country. Even if you go to my own village called Orokam, as tiny as it is, you will get a competent person from there. Same with other communities. Unless you’re telling me that an examination is written and at the end, you select people who come first to be president. If that is the case, then let them write a national examination and see, so that all of us will go and write and whoever emerges first will take the presidency. It’s not done like that. So, in terms of solidarity and togetherness and in terms of creating that feeling that the country belongs to all of us, if the president comes from this side one time, let it come from the other side until all the sides have benefited. And as I look at it, from among all of the geopolitical zones, it is the South East that has not had a shot at the presidency. That is my own feeling. I don’t know anybody from the South East to say that I’m arguing in his favour but all I’m saying is the region. If you look closely at that area, you will find somebody who is competent to emerge in any of the parties.