By Onyedika Agbedo
Elder statesman and renowned legal luminary, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), in this interview on the state of the nation, declares his support for the agitation for the restructuring of the country. He says that President Muhammadu Buhari has the power under Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution to kick-start the process, but notes that he can choose not to exercise such power “if he believes that as this country is going on is okay for everybody.” Clarke also bares his mind on the agitation for Biafra by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), especially against the backdrop of the Federal Government’s moves to return the leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu, to prison over alleged violation of his bail condition. To him, “Kanu means nothing in Nigeria” and there should be no fears if the court decides to send him back to prison for undermining the rule of law. Clarke further speaks on sundry national issues that are agitating the minds of Nigerians. Excerpts:
There was this view in some quarters when President Muhammadu Buhari was on medical vacation that his sickness and prolonged absence had also made Nigeria sick given the plethora of issues the country contended with like agitations for breakup and all that. Now that he has returned and back in the saddle, do you think the country is back in track?
Well, I am not of the belief that the absence of the president for one reason or the other and his return has changed anything in Nigeria. Under Section 145 of the Nigerian Constitution, the law says that if the president wants to go on vacation or medical tourism, he needs to inform the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The law says that once he does that, he can go for as long as he likes. It is when he decides that he is ready to return back to Nigeria that the law says he should return. So, that’s a lacuna in the constitution, which I think should be looked into, because if he had stayed for one year, he would not have done anything unconstitutional.
Now, to say that his absence created certain events like the Nnamdi Kanu case, the Igbo must quit the North issue, and all of that, I don’t think his absence as such created such situations. I believe that this is part of Nigeria’s way of behaviour and that the influences of ethnicity and religion in Nigeria are the worst two elements that can destroy this country. And that is what is playing out.
Now, whether his return is going to change that concept that there was this schism in his absence, I don’t think his presence would change anything. Nnamdi Kanu and others have been agitating for Biafra well before Buhari came into power and there was nothing he did to stop it. His absence though gave more power to that vocal aspect of Biafra but I don’t see why people should think that by his returning to Nigeria now things would be normal. Nigeria is Nigeria; our problems are always constant. They are ethnic problems; they are political problems and they abide with us everyday.
What do you expect the president to be doing now against the backdrop of some of the challenges that confronted the country in his absence?
The issues of governance are all there and there are a plethora of matters that need his attention. Fortunately, Nigeria did not collapse in his absence; fortunately, Nigeria did not go into disarray; fortunately, there was no political turmoil in the country in his absence. So, now that he is back, he will continue with the duty where Vice President Yemi Osinbajo left it as acting president. And I believe that Nigeria will continue to move forward. So, his absence for over 100 days and his return will not change anything in the governance of the country.
One of the issues that featured prominently in political discourse in his absence was restructuring. Many groups in the country issued ultimatums saying that it’s either the country is restructured or there would be a breakup. What is your take on that?
You see, restructuring by itself, by normal parlance, means you have a structure, a house or a country like Nigeria and you want to restructure it. It means you are not satisfied with the way it is at the moment. Nigeria has had almost seven or eight restructuring since 1914. Nigeria was known as the Protectorates of Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria. Lord Lugard restructured it in 1914 and it became Nigeria. Then, the colonial governors were ruling this country by way of provinces; they created 24 provinces and placed the so-called Regents who were governing Nigeria under the provincial system of governance. By 1954, Nigeria was restructured and three regions were created from Nigeria — the Northern Region, Western Region and Eastern Region. In 1962, Nigeria was restructured to add the Mid-West Region. By 1966 during the military coup, Gen. Gowon restructured Nigeria from four regions into 12 states. When Murtala Mohammed came into power in 1976, he restructured Nigeria from 12 states to 19 states. When the trouble of two thirds of 19 states came in 1979 and nearly created a political problem in Nigeria, Babangida came in and restructured Nigeria from 19 states to 21 states by adding Akwa Ibom and Katsina states; and that was to eliminate the problem of two thirds of 19. Abacha, who I regard as the greatest enemy of Nigeria, restructured Nigeria from 21 states to 36 states. So, the 36 states structure we have today is about the seventh restructuring Nigeria has had. And it is this 36 states structure that is causing Nigeria trouble today, because 28 out of these 36 states cannot even feed themselves; they cannot pay salaries.
So, when we are talking about restructuring we now have to look at what sort of restructuring we want. Are we restructuring Nigeria within the context of one Nigeria or are we asking for restructuring to dismember Nigeria from one entity by the creation of Oduduwa State, Biafra State, etc? Is that what we are asking for? My view is that Nigeria needs to restructure but the restructuring I envisage is where the system of governance is restructured.
So, what system of governance do you think Nigeria should opt for now?
One of the military leaders we had, I can’t recall whether it was Abacha or Babangida that suggested the restructuring of Nigeria into six geographical zones; each zone cutting from the North down to the South in parallel lines creating six autonomous geographical zones with devolution of power; so that power now will be devolved to those states and then many of them will not depend on the Federal Government for their livelihood. That is the type of restructuring that I want; 36 states does not make sense when 28 of those states cannot even pay the salaries of workers. Under the present structure, 80 per cent of what we earn goes into paying salaries and allowances of politicians. So, my view is that the system of governance must be restructured. We cannot continue with the 1999 Constitution; the 1999 Constitution is a rotten egg; no matter what amendments you make on it, zero times zero will always be zero. So, we have to jettison it. How we do it is between you and I to think about.
From your submission sir, you appear to be advocating for a return to regionalism. How can that be achieved now?
I am not saying regionalism; I am saying that six geographical zones, which will be autonomous, should be the structure of the country. You know, in 1956 under the colonial government, the three regions we had then were self-governing. They were self-governing in virtually everything until the military incursion in Nigeria; and because the military has a unitary form of command, they made Nigeria’s federation to become a unitary form of federation. And that’s what we are suffering today. What I am saying is that the restructuring now, whether we call it regionalism or whatever name, let them have full powers. The devolution of power that many of you are talking about that the National Assembly should grant to the states should be granted to the six geographical zones so that they are in charge of their police, agriculture, mineral resources, etc; they should only pay royalties to the Federal Government for whatever resources they have. If it is oil, the state should take the oil and pay royalty to the Federal Government; and let the Federal Government keep hold in Defence, Foreign Affairs, Customs and whatever you call it. That is the type of restructuring I want.
Who should initiate the process?
Now, that is the difficulty. The Nigerian Constitution as of today does not envisage a restructuring of the nature I am talking about. But we can do it! If we all collectively agree, then Mr. President today should call for a referendum. He should declare: “The system of governance we have under the 1999 Constitution is carrying us nowhere. It is zero times zero; do we change it? If we are going to change it, what sort of change do you want?” He should put it to the people as a referendum. The President by virtue of Section 5 of the Constitution has the power to call for a referendum. When he finishes and there is a referendum, before it can become law, it has to go to the National Assembly. But the problem here is that the people in the National Assembly are people who are benefiting from the 1999 Constitution.They don’t want to change it. So, the question is how do we make them to change since the people have spoken. I leave it to you to think about; I leave it to myself to think about. God will not come down from heaven to say, ‘oh, Nigerians you have said you want this system of governance but your National Assembly does not want to approve it.’ So, what happens? I leave it to all Nigerians to think of what we can do. But I believe that once the people have spoken, if the National Assembly refuses to carry it, then superior force should be used to remove them.
Sir, there is this view that the 1999 Constitution has no provision for referendum, but you are now saying the President can order for it…
The constitution is an Executive Act and Section 5 of the Nigerian Constitution vests all executive powers on the president. Today in the U.S., you hear President Donald Trump saying, ‘I’m using my executive power to make an order; Obama’s executive order on immigrants, I’m canceling it’. That is the executive power of the president. Today, Buhari as the custodian of all executive powers in Nigeria can order for a referendum. He can say, ‘fellow citizens, do you want to change this constitution; what type of governance structure do you want’. He has the power to do so.
So, in essence you are saying that the political future of the country as of today lies in President Buhari’s hands?
It lies on the Presidency if he has the will to do it. But if he believes that as this country is going on is okay for everybody, good luck to him. But I don’t believe we are moving anywhere; there is no light in the tunnel. We are going deep, deep into oblivion in Nigeria.
Away from the issue of restructuring, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu was released on bail few months back. The Federal Government has approached the court to return him to prison over alleged violation of his bail conditions and there is this view in some quarters that re-arresting him will only aggravate the tension in the country. What’s your take sir?
Let us look at it like this – Nnamdi Kanu was released on bail on certain conditions. Bail that has a condition means that you will be allowed to go home under this condition. The conditions he was given included not holding a press conference, which he has violated. The case has been adjourned; when the next adjournment comes and he comes to court, then the court would say, ‘I gave you bail and you did not adhere to the conditions of the bail. I am withdrawing the bail’. So, it is not a question of re-arresting him. When the court withdraws the bail, the status quo returns and he will be taken back to Kirikiri. So, it’s not a question of re-arresting him. At the next adjourned date when the case is fixed for hearing in October, when he goes to court, which he has to do, then the judge will say, ‘oh, I granted you bail on these conditions; and you called a press conference on this date and that date, which is in violation of the condition. I am now breaking your bail. Go back to prison’. So, it’s not a re-arrest.
But is that not going to cause more troubles for the country?
It depends on which divide you are. For me as Robert Clarke, Kanu means nothing in Nigeria. His ideal means nothing to me. But to an average Igbo man, his ideal means a lot. So, if there is any problem affecting Kanu, the problem will arise from the people in the eastern part of Nigeria who are his kinsmen because they believe in his ideology. I don’t believe in his ideology, so I’m not bothered as to what happens to him. So, there is no fear. If there is going to be any problem, it will arise from where his kinsmen are.
What about the issue of Arewa youths who issued quit notice to the Igbo living in the North. The argument of those saying that sending Nnamdi Kanu back to prison will create more problems for the country is that those northern youths were not arrested at all in spite of threats to that effect by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-rufai. The question is why Kanu again?
Let me be honest with you; I don’t want to go into issues that are not legal. I don’t want to go into issues that have been generated by tribalism. I don’t want to go into issues that have been generated by religious intolerance. So, when people speak in relation to such things, I hold on and look. But let us objectively look at it. What the Arewa people are saying is different from what Kanu is saying. Kanu says he wants a state of Biafra, which means he wants the Igbo to secede from Nigeria. And the Arewas are saying if you want to secede from Nigeria better leave the North and go.
So, they are two different issues. But even at that, is that quit notice the same as the court order that granted him bail? They are different. Arewa youths made a statement at a conclave or meeting that has no binding force of law. It’s an opinion. Kanu’s case has a backing of law; his release on bail has a backing of law and if we believe in the rule of law, which you and I must believe in so that we can be able to walk the streets, then we must give efficacy to it.
Let me be honest with you; I don’t want to go into issues that are not legal. I don’t want to go into issues that have been generated by tribalism. I don’t want to go into issues that have been generated by religious intolerance. So, when people speak in relation to such things, I hold on and look. But let us objectively look at it. What the Arewa people are saying is different from what Kanu is saying. Kanu says he wants a state of Biafra, which means he wants the Igbo to secede from Nigeria. And the Arewas are saying if you want to secede from Nigeria better leave the North and go. So, they are two different issues. But even at that, is that quit notice the same as the court order that granted him bail? They are different. Arewa youths made a statement at a conclave or meeting that has no binding force of law. It’s an opinion. Kanu’s case has a backing of law; his release on bail has a backing of law and if we believe in the rule of law, which you and I must believe in so that we can be able to walk the streets, then we must give efficacy to it.
That takes us to the issue of the Federal Government’s plan to clamp down on purveyors of hate speech across the country. Some people say that it’s only the government that knows the meaning of hate speech and as such see the step as an attempt to violate Nigerians’ right to freedom of expression. How do you look at the issue?
Well, let me give you the distinction. Freedom of speech means you can make statements as to any opinion you want. When you make a hate speech as an individual; if I Robert Clarke says something, which is a hate speech but I am saying it in my chambers here to my friends, it is not illegal. I’m expressing my opinion on a given issue. For instance, I can confine myself to my house and say that I don’t like Yoruba and give my reasons. But when I go outside to a public place and I collect 20 to 30 people and I’m saying the same thing to them, the law will look at my act as one that is trying to cause a breach of the peace. At that stage, because of the circumstances under which it is now being spoken, it will constitute an offence. If I say it in my house, I’m entitled to say it and nobody can hold me for it. But if I go to Isale-Gongon and mount a rostrum and start saying, ‘you Yoruba people I don’t like you’, although I had said the same thing in my house, which carries no legal obligation, I will be charged for incitement for saying it there. And that is the type of hate speech Nigeria should not encourage.
So, the Federal Government’s plan is in the right direction?
They are correct! If you say it in your room, it’s not an offence. But if you go out and collect people around and start telling them that Yorubas, Igbos and Hausas are not good people, it’s becoming a hate speech.
Finally sir, how can the country roll back the increasing animosity among Nigerians, which threw up this issue of hate speech?
It is difficult! One funny thing is that from my own age group, from my school days, there was nothing like tribalism or animosity amongst us. I attended CMS Grammar School where we had Igbos, Hausas and Yorubas in the boarding house and nobody looked at the other person as an Igbo man or a Yoruba man. All these things came in when politics came in and people were using tribalism and ethnicity to campaign to be elected. I told you earlier that the two greatest enemies of Nigeria today are ethnicity and religion. And those are the two things that politicians use when they are campaigning. So, there is no animosity; the animosity is being created by politicians to win votes.
In our own days, we had a man called Nduka Eze, who won local government election in Lagos. There was one Hausa man in Port Harcourt named Altine; he was the chairman of Port Harcourt local government council. This was in the 50s.
In present day Nigeria, we have allowed ethnicity, tribalism and religion to take control of our political lives; everything now is: What is his/her local government? Even within the same state, we still discriminate local government by local government. So, it is not something that one can say by fiat that it can be stopped; it is the way of thinking that has to be changed now. When things are normal, when there is money and food, people will not think about these things. It is because there is hunger and politicians who are stealing the money are giving the people back their own money to promote all these hate. So, time will tell whether we will change.
Whats your advice to Buhari incase you see him face to face?
We should not use violence. the other day,I saw in the news, i don’t know if its the social media, i saw a moving armoured vehicles and troops into the south east. that is not the way to go when agitations like this come. these are not the days you use force or intimidation on people, because people are ready to die. we should go to the the table. take for instance the appointment in NNPC, who will not agitate? these are reasons why people agitate.You can’t give 10 to the north, three to the southwest, two to the south south and nothing to the east and you want them to sleep and you want Nnamdi Kanu not to talk again.? At times, i ask myself who are the people giving these advice, why are they giving these advice?
I just also heard the approval of a rail road from Kano to Daura, what is the economic benefit of that rail road? we understand the one from Kaduna to Abuja, at least people who live in kaduna can work in Abuja but this one, show me the economic benefits of spending such billions to develop rail road from kano to aura. the states that generate these funds we don’t even have roads that connect them, how much more airport, even the asana airport was built by state not federal government, the staters that really generates these money don’t have roads, they don’t have airport and you want them not to agitate? at times, i say to myself, is somebody working on peoples mind in the federal government, for me i will tell him that such things are not acceptable.
What informs your choice of topic at this 18th Annual lecture: Made in Nigeria Products:The Vehicle For Sustainable Development?
You are aware that our economy is in a very very vicarious situation and the world economy is virtually going out of power and in few years, less than 10 years a lot of countries will not be importing oil any longer. so the need to look inwards to see what we can begin to do ourselves so that our economy no longer depend on oil. The nation is very highly endowed and untli we look away from oil. unfortunately we wasted our years of harvest but i don’t think its late. we can still do something out of what we have in Nigeria.
What do you think the government should do in all these?
The government should be sincere about this issue Made in Nigeria goods, at times some of the policies are not pursued with honesty. you cant be telling Nigerians to involve in developing Nigerian content and at the same time favoring those who are still import from outside better than those who are doing something to develop Nigeria and bring employment to nigerians. The federal government should be very sincere in its intent to encourage Nigerian entrepreneurs.
What would you say about the ongoing ASSU Crisis?
The federal government should new serious in our educational system because that is the future of the country. If education is destroyed in this country, we have finished. we have no future. they should sincerely and honestly look into their demands. Even if they are not able to meet those demands but show them that you are truly interested in their welfare because its not fair that their welfare is taken for granted and you still want them to put in their 100%. I think the federal government should look sincerely and honestly look into their demands . when you are truly sincere about something the person you are dealing with will know. The federal government is sincerely look into the situation and help them.
And the doctors are trying to join in the strike also?
That is because the government has not shown interest. At times, we take for granted these things and think that we can use government force to push down agitations. The federal government must understand that gone are the days where you can push down people and use the government policy to bulldoze them. Information is out there. We are no longer in those days where we lack information. People are getting information and people are becoming enlightened so we must go back to the table and then look into people agitations.