Prof Yima Sen, university teacher, social scientist, and director general, Northern Elders Forum (NEF), was part of the think-tank in the President Shehu Shagari administration. In this encounter with Sunday Sun, he speaks on the Edo election, constitutional review, the problem with Nigeria, and the strategy the Southeast should adopt in their quest for 2023 presidency, among other national issues. Excerpt:
Are you worried about the forth-coming Edo election given the anxiety or violent scenario that has been at play even before this final campaign?
Well, African elections always build up like that; sometimes they end up in war, sometimes they end up in peace. So, Edo election is no exception. African elections are always looking as if there is going to be war, but sometimes it is not war; sometimes it is war. They just heat up the system. So, how will this one be different? I don’t know. It’s just for all stakeholders to tread with caution.
How would you react to the issue of the piece meal constitutional review, which the National Assembly is poised to embark on?
I don’t know what piecemeal means; my understanding if I am correct is that they are doing it in bits and pieces. So, when you look at other countries, for example, what has happened to their own constitutional amendments has it been piecemeal or full meal? Let’s look at England, for example, the Magna Carta. Is the Magna Carta really a comprehensive constitution or some sort of agreement? Here you are talking about the Welch, English, Scots, Irish. You look at other lands…what have they done in terms of constitutionalism? You look at the country that we are copying or affiliating with, like those who colonized us, the British, and those that we have copied our recent constitution from. How did they arrive at their own constitutions? Is there anything to learn from them? Secondly, I heard that they are trying to vote a large sum of money (in billions) for this constitutional review so I don’t know what the money is going to be spent for. I am surprised to learn that we can be talking about such a large sum of money for a mere constitutional review, which is an intellectual exercise. But the thing really if you ask me, is that we have been so concerned about forms of government in Nigeria that we have left out the substance of governance itself, which is good governance. The point is that, according to a philosopher (Alexander), for forms of government, let fools contest, what is best administered is best. It is a very simple statement, but it is loaded with truism, which is that; you can have any form of government, but if you don’t have it or run it well then it’s just a waste of time. Good governance is what we need. There are some places where you even have a benevolent dictator and you have a good society. You can have a unitary system that is delivering and you have a good society. You can have a confederal system that is delivering, you have a good state. I think the most important thing is delivering good governance, but I am not saying that the type of government is not important, but the key is good governance. Even if you practice what you think is a best system and there is no good governance in it, you will still get a bad society.
But the feeling is that since it was not Nigerians that gathered, perhaps at a conference to give themselves the constitution, that what we have is more or less a military constitution?
Of course, I have heard that argument, so the military that put together this constitutional arrangement are they Ghanaian military or Sierra Leone military or Gabon military?
It’s the Nigerian military?
Look, if you go back to history lane almost all, in fact, all the input of the military into national governance has come with civilian inputs, all of them. Of course, some of them have also come with civilian and military inputs like most of the recent one, President Jonathan’s national conference of 2014. Some of the front liners there were people like Col. Tony Nyiam and some others. Go and check the historical records to see whether all that the military has done in this country has not been without the civilian input? I am just provoking you to have a richer analysis in your conversations on this issue. We must start to elevate our arguments rather than following the crowd. When you develop your news analysis I want you to let Nigerians know that every single action of the military in Nigeria since 1966 when the military made their first entrance into politics, has had civilian input, so the only difference is that the people in the saddle have been the military. If you ask some people they will tell you that the 2014 constitutional conference was as militaristic as any other because some people believe that it was also tele-guided by the Jonathan administration, so tele-guiding is a style of the military, isn’t it? It’s coercion, isn’t it? So, what distinguishes the military from the civilian is coercion; so, if the civilians are also engaged in coercion then what is the difference? We should insist on good governance.
What is your take on the Water Resources Bill 2020?
The Water Resources Bill has been accused of some mischievous intent, in that some people say that somebody wants to take a hold of our water resources, maybe as grazing resources for certain occupational groups and that it will badly affect other nationalities. But has it really been passed? If it does pass then what lessons do we receive from it? Is that a priority in Nigeria today?
Many Nigerians are also raising issues with the recent CAMA 2020 law?
The people who are raising issues maybe are genuinely concerned because they are saying that you (government) want to intrude into what is non-governmental activity, faith-based activity, which is voluntary and should actually have minimum government intervention. Some people are asking; is it a way of trying to monitor people who have assembled voluntarily and what is the objective of such monitoring? What is the fundamental rationale behind this whole initiative, that is the big question? If there are more suspicion than there are more convictions then there is an issue there.
How would you react to the issue of security challenges in the country?
This issue of insecurity, let’s look at the first major threat of insurgency during the Maitatsine crisis under President Shehu Shagari. Maitatsine operated in the Kano area, but do you hear about Maitatsine again today? So, how did Maitatsine end and Boko Haram cannot end? Is somebody investing in Boko Haram? Is there a vested interest in Boko Haram? Are you saying that the Nigerian Army, which has been excellent from the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone wars etc, cannot quash an insurgency? Even me as an academic can tell you what the problem is from when it started. For us in the social sciences, we deal with causality, we deal with cause to effect, so if you are able to track cause to effect, then you can also proffer solution. So, it’s a scientific method of identifying the problem, tracking it, and finding a solution to them. Are you telling me that in Nigeria, we do not have the capacity to do that?
Some people believe that it has become difficult to handle because it has been internationalized and groups like ISIS are part of it now?
So ISIS, are they spirits? You don’t know their modus operandi, how they operate? How they come in? You cannot track them? Some of these issues insult our intelligence. They give the impression that we don’t have the capacity to understand our national problem, but we do. If you use the thinkers in Nigeria they will help you and we know that the Nigerian military has managed to push Boko Haram to the Cameroun border and to the shores of Lake Chad and then into the Sambisa Forest, which are the four locations of the sedentary (the ones who are on the ground) Boko Haram operators. Now, the ones who are mobile are the ones coming from where ever in the Sahel area. Is it possible to track these people? Do we have the mechanism to track them? Have we employed those mechanisms? If they have failed why have they failed? If they have actually failed how can we correct them? Can we find other solutions? These are the kind of questions that we ask in academia and we try to proffer solutions. So, are you telling us that we cannot think in Nigeria or what?
These things critics believe boil down to governance or bad leadership…?
(Cuts in) Well, you said it and I cannot disagree with you.
Most Nigerians are worried that the leadership recruitment process has not helped us in getting the right people in key positions of authority?
Well, the challenge falls back on us to find the correct strategy to push out these good people because you can’t hide your good people and push out the mediocrity and expect the society to develop. You have to bring out your best to develop your society and you discover that when that happens everybody is happier.
Part of our problem here is godfatherism…
(Cuts in) So, if we know that godfatherism is a problem, how then do we get rid of it? Let me tell you, I seriously think that part of our problem is traceable on the way we got our independence, it was through a gentleman’s arrangement, and so we believe that political struggle is something you can also handle through a gentleman’s arrangement. If you ask the people in Zimbabwe in South Africa or Mozambique in Angola, and Namibia etc, they will tell you that they had to go through political struggles, so if you want justice you run good society, if you want equity and fairness in the society you have to fight for it. It’s not going to drop in your bosom; you have to struggle for it. Even in the bourgeoisie society, societies like the United States and Britain, put up struggles. You know Britain had to make a compromise between feudalism and capitalism. The Queen remains the Head of State of England, she is the monarch and then you have the Prime Minister who is the Head of Government. There is a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the feudalist in the course of struggle. So, if you expect that in Nigeria everything will just fall in your lap it will not fall just like that, you have to struggle for the kind of society that you want, you have to fight for it.
What is your take on the economic hardship in the country although many believe that the COVID-19 pandemic helped to worsen it or you think otherwise?
The economic hardship in Nigeria as far as I can remember has to do with the structure of the economy. Where you have a peri-capitalist economy that operates on the basis of anything goes. You have criminals and crooks operating inside the government as political leaders. Criminals violate the law and they are apprehended and the courts free them and they come back and still sit in front of our consciousness and our governance, so how can they not encourage smaller criminals? And if you are running an economy like that, where you have no order, so to speak, how can an economic system evolve which caters for the majority of the people? It cannot, it will always be skewed to favour criminals and that is what is happening. Can you lead an honest life in Nigeria today? How many can? It’s so difficult because you see all sorts of ostentation and people measure you on such a basis that reflects ill-gotten wealth. This has become the norm and when you want to behave otherwise people will think that there is something wrong with you.
Different regions have started strategizing for 2023 and the presidency. Do you have a preference for any region?
Who am I to have a preference? What is the value of my preference? I can comment on it generally, but to have a preference what will my preference be. Is it not one vote that I have? And that may not count when it matters most. But the point here is about power-sharing or what has been called rotation. Different sections may have their own arguments as to why it should be their turn. For instance, the Southeast, perhaps after Ironsi and Zik, has not really had a shot at the presidency, which is correct. You may also hear an argument from the North-central and they will tell you they have not had an elected president that they have only had military president, which is also correct. You may go to the South-south and they will tell you that Jonathan did not complete his second term, that he did only four years. I don’t know what the Southwest argument will be because they have been compensated on Abiola with Obasanjo. But anybody can bring about any argument to justify their clamour to have the presidency. If you ask me really I will say that we should have the dissolution of this rotation principle and leave the election free for all, for anybody, any Nigerian to contest. But the point here is that some people will say that, look we have been practicing rotation so why now that it has come to their turn. But then you have to answer that question as to why you are terminating the rotation principle, where it is somebody’s turn. I don’t know how you can deal with that. But I will like to see a situation whereby we work towards politics that are beyond rotating the office. But having said this, if a strong argument is coming from the East, for example, the argument from there is not necessarily going to be justified by rotation, it should be perhaps justified by a canvassing approach which tends to convince the other Nigerians why an Easterner should be president. I think that should be more profitable than insisting on the zoning. This is because if you have a very good candidate and you have a very good argument about why you should be there that will be stronger than hinging your argument on “this is our turn”. They need to build bridges across.