Raphael Ede, Enugu
Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Jnr) is the President General of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo. In this interview, he said that Nigeria under the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led Federal Government is sliding into a pariah status.
He accused President Muhammadu Buhari of enthroning ethnicism into the nation’s polity.
He also said that only a leader that understands how to grow Nigeria’s economy with Information Technology (IT) is what would save the country, pointing out that the failure of leadership has made the country to become restive.
You emerged the student union president of the University of Ibadan in an institution with a very large number of Yoruba students. How were you able to do that?
First of all, I must to say that the student body was detribalised because the Yoruba constituted nearly 60 to 65 per cent of the student body. My opponent was a Yoruba man, but we had very civilized campaigning; we are allowed to go round the hostels to address students on what you stood for and I found everyday as my campaign hots up that I garnered more supporters who volunteered to follow me to my campaigns. The chairman of my campaign was an Yoruba man; however tribalism came up towards the final stage of the campaign at the speech night when the students welfare officer who was the returning officer introduced speakers and the speakers started from assistant secretaries, all the assistants where exhausted, the principal officers and the last candidates that were called was the candidates for the president of the students union. At every other stage candidates were called in the order of the returned nomination forms, if you returned earlier before someone you spoke before him, but when it got to the presidency I was supposed to be called first, but because it didn’t suit the plot they changed it to alphabetical order and my opponent, Adegboro was called before me and when he finished speaking, he began to sing in Yoruba: ‘tiwan, tiwan he says jakawole jakawole’ this means ‘our own is our own’. He was fanning the Yoruba sentiment that you cannot seed the headship of the student union to someone who is not Yoruba and they had the design to disperse the crowd so that I would not have an opportunity to speak and we had fore-knowledge of this because the Yoruba were working with me and gave us fore-knowledge information and we blocked all the exit to the courtyards; in fact, my supporters began to throw human beings ahead of the crowd and everybody was worried. A Yoruba classmate of mine called Kunle walked up to the student affairs officer and said ‘I am ashamed to be Yoruba and I am ashamed of you.’ These are the electoral rules, you have turned them upside down, people are singing in vernacular and it is clearly stated here that you should not speak in vernacular. Nwodo was supposed to speak first in the list you circulated, I got on to speak after he had spoken to Kunle, he addressed the students that they must give everybody a chance to speak and I was called up to speak. The loudspeakers were immediately disconnected and you can imagine, we were like 5,000 students in Ibadan at that time. I immediately jumped on a table that was on there so that everybody could have visibility of me. I didn’t know what occurred to me to do so. I decided to condense my speech to few sentences because under the anger and frustration of the crowd that the loudspeakers were disconnected, if you made a long speech you will lose span of attention and my brother has just written a thesis in international law ‘on the role of UN and international organisations in the achievement of world peace and my father forced all of us to summarize the thesis in 10 pages of foolscap sheets and there was a paragraph I fell in love with; when he was discussing the Congo, he said ‘the Congo in view of its central position in Africa was like a continent for Africa, accordingly when it erupts, seismic wave repulses across Africa. So, I plagiarized my brother, I said the University of Ibadan, in view of its premier position in development of institutions of higher learning, is like a national political volcano, when Ibadan erupts seismic wave repulses universities in Nigeria. I even added when we sneeze they catch cold. I said it is in this context I see the leadership of the students union of the University of Ibadan. It must have the courage to champion students’ courses; it must be responsive to the yearnings and aspirations of the students. After that speech I really won the election because my speech was motivating, it was captivating, it was engaging and it lasted for less than three minutes. In fact, one girl just instantaneously came and embraced me and both of us fell on the ground and she was crying out of happiness. I dare say that my detribalised nature; my close friends were Yoruba, they were northerners and I did not make demarcation as Igbo. The tribal inclination of my opponent angered the Yoruba who thought that this was not right and united non-Yoruba in my favour. Even at the distribution of ballot papers the areas where I had more supporters were denied ballot papers, some were disenfranchised all in an attempt I did not win and it was all done by the students welfare officer, but I still won by 96 votes. So, that was how it happened.
What will you say is the reason for the large number of unemployed youths in Nigeria today and how do you suggest it should be tackled?
The falling standard of education, we have no skills to manage and we do not have enough teachers with skills to impact anything that could translate into a marketable skill. You know if you own a company and you want to employ people you must employ people with the know-how in what you are doing, but our education is useless now. You see somebody who graduated from secondary school and he cannot speak good English. He has done Physics, Chemistry and Biology, but all he did was alternative to practical. And the solution is to bring into government a leader who understands where the world is going and who is prepared to take the bull by the horn. I see no other way. Our resources are not invested in correct places and that is why our country cannot move. Today, we pay 69 per cent of our national revenue on servicing of debts. Our major source of income, oil, is a declining source of revenue. America will produce 12 million barrels of crude oil in next six month every day and we are producing 1.7 million, which means we will be deprived out of market.
What do you think is the reason for the sharp division along ethnic and religious lines in the country today?
The leadership. Our current leadership has become so ethnicised that it has reminded people of their homes. If you are a Fulani and you do wrong you will escape the law. If you are a Fulani and you don’t qualify for a job, you get it. If you are a Fulani you become a herdsman and kill people, you are not arrested. You hang an automatic rifle on your neck and you are photographed and show in all the social media, nobody arrests you. You break into a church in Benue State, kill the priests and choirs and turn around, wear the uniform of the choir, danced and it was trending all over the place in the social media, nobody will arrest you. If you go to Nimbo and kill farmers there and you show them in your telephones, nobody prosecutes you. There is one law for some people and another law for the others. If you are a Fulani, you can become Chief Justice of Nigeria, whether you went to our normal law school or you went to Sharia school. If you are a Fulani and you are a Chief of Army Staff you can be there forever. When your tenure finishes it can be elongated, something that has never happened in the history of our country and does not have any justification in any establishment law that we know. Our present government has remained much on where you come from in terms of our ethnic configuration and as long as this situation persists Nigeria will continue to remain a tribalistic nation.
You were said to have fought on the Biafran side during the civil war. Looking back now, do you think you fought for a right course?
Yes, certainly I have no regrets. By the time the war was declared our people were brought back every day as corpses from northern Nigeria. It was a pogrom. Every Igbo man was killed on sight. We were boxed into a corner. We had no choice, but to defend ourselves. They declared a police action on us and we fought in self-defense not only for our lives, but to have freedom to self-determination.
Do you think the wound of the civil war has been properly healed about 50 years after?
How can it be healed when our constitution was overturned? The Army as soon as they won the war, our federal character was destroyed? The concept of federation in a political dictionary is the unity of independent nations. The federating units must be autonomous and that is what the 1963 Constitution gave to us; each region has sovereignty of resources in his place. Each region was responsible for his local administration as well as for his judicial administration. There were Supreme Court in various regions on matters that were exclusive for regional responsibility and the Federal Government was not as ubiquitous as it is now. The Federal Government today is in education, it is in infrastructure, is in environment, it is in agriculture and in everything. No, we had the Eastern Nigerian Development Corporation. We had Eastern Nigerian Agricultural Corporation, we had farm settlements all over the place growing palm produce, growing cashew, growing Banana and all sorts of things which we were exporting and from the export earning we built a university, we built iron and steel complex and so on. So, how could anybody say that one would regret being part of a moment for our independence and since the end of the war they have expropriated our rights? They have made us second-class citizens in our own country and our place is restive because our children cannot take it.
What lessons do you think Nigerians of today should learn from what happened during that time?
To go back to a true federation, restructure the country and avoid any attempt to break our country and go to war. But try and grow what will become the strongest economy in the world; where every area will develop at its own pace and complement one another.
Do you think Buhari was wrong when he said advocates of restructuring do not know what they really wanted?
I think he was the one who did not know what he was talking about. He has no concept of the direction we must move. He feels happy that he can give 10 positions to one state. Bauchi State has the Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of Court of Appeal, Speaker House of Representatives, Chairman of INEC, Group Managing Director of NNPC, Executive Secretary of TETFUND, Chief of Air Staff, Acting Chairman of National Population Commission, Minister of Education, all loaded in one state and you say we do not know what we are talking about because it is to his own advantage. Right now, Nigeria is restive beginning from his own area. His own governor cried out loud that there is no security in his place because of ethnic dominance in security and professionalism is gone. The governor of Zamfara said after meeting with him ‘I am ready to give up my position, declare a state of emergency in my state, we are unsafe.’ The governor of Sokoto State said ‘our rural area is conquered by militant, we need help from the military.’ The governor of Borno State said ‘the local government reclaimed by the military are now being re-reclaimed by Boko Haram.’ So, who does not know what he is talking about is the president; when a country is boiling in this way because you have concentrated all power in one place; certainly he does not know what he is talking about.
Has this government been fair to the people of the Southeast since Buhari came into office?
No. I have told you about the marginalization and the entire security structure in Nigeria is weighed in favour of the North and the Fulani. Nobody from the Southeast has been found worthy to be Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, Chief of Army or Navy or even Commander of Civil Defense or Commander of FRSC, even the National Fire Service, not to talk about national intelligence agency and state security services. The president in his tour has told us that he appoints those people on merit; is he suggesting in one moment that nobody in the Southeast and South-south has merit. Controller of Customs has never come down here, Controller of Immigration has not come down here, it is the exclusive preserve of one part of the country. Can you imagine that NNPC, the bread-winner of the country, is managed by a board that has northern Nigeria in the majority and has only one person from the Southeast and one from the South-south and this is preposterous? I don’t understand it. He has destroyed national unity and cohesion.
Does an Igbo person stand any chance of being elected President of Nigeria in 2023?
I think so, if we do our arithmetic correctly. We have the voting strength; forget about the fact that they tell you, you have eight million votes in the Southeast, but in Lagos alone the Igbo registered about 2.4 million; Northern Nigeria there are 11.6 million Igbo and five million of them are registered. In other parts of Nigeria other than the Southeast you can aggregate about three million Igbo. In every part of this country apart from the indigenous population, the next highest population there are Igbo. So, we have votes, if election means ethnic configuration of candidates of an ethnic area as Buhari is trying to make us believe; then it means an Igbo man can have a vote, a strong Igbo man in a strong political party can have something to wage, but far more importantly is that there is consensus in the country that the presidency must move North and South after every eight years. It appears to me that right now the people of Nigeria are aware of the fact that the Igbo man has been short-changed; that we have not had access to this position at all. The only access we had to the presidency was Azikiwe’s presidency, which was ceremonial and Aguiyi Ironsi short-term head of a federal military government, otherwise we have not had a president from Igbo extraction. And it further dramatizes our marginalization and we had independence in 1960 and for crying out loud this is about 59 years of our independence and no Igbo man has been elected as the executive president of Nigeria or even acted for one year as executive authority as a military leader, it has not happened.
You were a Minister of Aviation. Why did Nigeria Airways collapse?
Very interesting. I was sworn-in as the Minister of Civil Aviation on November 11, 1983 and I was removed as minister by military coup organised by President Buhari on the 31st of December 1983. So, I was minister for basically one and half month. In the one and half month I wrote a memo for the suspension of the managing directors of Nigerian Airways and Airport Authority, and for the resumption of an audit of both organisations. That memo was on Buhari’s table when the coup happened and after reading it, he sent a man called Col. Akili to where I was in detention. Akili showed me the memo and said did you write this, and I said yes. He gave me new sheets of paper and said if you think you wrote it, rewrite it again and I wrote a lot more. I showed that both organisations were in recurrent and capital deficits with no plan about how to overcome it. It was a place where people came to chop money and they did not want to develop anything and a lot of money has been frittered away; a lot of useless aircraft have been bought, guest houses where all over the place even abroad for members of the board to go and waste money that was not available. So, when I finished doing this, Col. Akili told me that the coup was not for people like you that I had only N13,000 in my account and opened the gate of Bonny Camp at 12 midnight and asked me to go. I thought it was dangerous to go, but Cornelius Adebayo who was governor of Kwara was released as the same time as myself and said let seize the opportunity when we have it, that one man who was escorting us cannot kill us. Both of us can hold him by his rifle. So, that is how I regained my freedom. I decided to go and read law in the London School of Economic and University of London and Col. Akilu came there on the instruction of Gen. Buhari and insisted on paying my school fees. I said I had already paid my school fees and he said that I should take him to the account department and they showed him the record of school fees that I had paid 6,000 pounds. He decided to pay for the next session and gave the account department 6,000 pounds and they gave me the receipt. He said that the government felt that you are an honest man and we want you to serve in the government. He has started inviting me to come and serve in the government of Buhari, but I said I cannot because I served Shehu Shagari, because if Buhari gives me a speech condemning Shagari I will not do it. If Shagari’s government was bad, I suffer a vicarious responsibility for it and so, I will not serve a government that overthrew him in a military coup, unconstitutionally.