Rights activist, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, has said that the proposed constitution amendment by the National Assembly will not yield anything. He rather recommended what he calls, national conversation. In an interview with VINCENT KALU, the senior lawyer, pointed out that the country will continue to be in a motion without movement until there is devolution of political power.
What do you make of the various conversations going on in the country at the moment?
We haven’t tackled the fundamental problems that ought to create unity in diversity; a conversation that everybody runs away from, not just this government, it goes back to even Jonathan. When I was appointed to the 2014 National Conference, my hope was that here was a president from minority group whose interest was to address political inequality and he did nothing. There was President Obasanjo who came from prison to state, he called a couple of conferences and did nothing.
So, until we find a political will to address the fundamental structural challenge of Nigeria, then we will continue to have all sorts of problems; today, it might be ethnic killings, violence, multi-religious violence as you see in Kaduna, Boko Haram in the Northeast, banditry in the Northwest, kidnapping in the Southwest, Southeast. All these are the products of a failed political system, where the basis of our unity like Gowon said back in 1966 remains very debatable.
The solution to these problems is not difficult and I’m happy the National Assembly has embarked yet on another cycle of consultative amendment to the constitution. This is the third time, they are just opening a public hearing. About 70 legislative proposals have been submitted, but I don’t know what the NASS is doing about them. We have known the solution, but no one is ready to apply it. That is the problem. Everything is at six and seven. You have a process that is not united; it is not collaborative, doesn’t take into account the needed synergy, then, we are all pulling in different directions. Over 360 ethnic nationalities are pulling in different directions. Look at the mess in Edo State. It is an average state, what is the big deal about being the governor? I will rather be an MD of a bank to being governor of Edo, but because of the political reward that will make the type of tension we see in that state in spite of the Oba’s admonition on both sides to cool it.
When the reward for political office is very high, but not the service that is put in, you have all sorts of challenges and the worst guys get in. When the worst guys get in they don’t deliver proper result, that is why you have wide spread poverty and a decayed system. The problem is at the root of political disalignment of Nigeria.
Like you mentioned, the NASS is set to amend the constitution, what do you expect in the new constitution?
The truth is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the constitution. The first key problem is that it is not a product of the peoples will; it was produced by the military under General Abdulsalami, so it lacks authenticity. A constitution is not difficult to change, it is only schedule attached to an act. If you want to repeal it, all you do is to pass an amendment to repeal the schedule to the constitution by replacing it with another schedule.
The second thing is to go straight to the issue; it doesn’t require too much grammar. Look at the tension between the Exclusive and the Concurrent Lists. In the Exclusive List, you have 68 items of power, and what they also say is that the residual power left for the state on the Concurrent List, that the federal government will also have thet power. If the federal government keeps its own Exclusive List of 68 items of power, but it wants to venture in to the Concurrent List, then it pushes away the power of the state to enact a law that the federal government has enacted in the Concurrent List. What that means is that the state has no power. The federal system is lopsided in favour of a federal pyramid with the federal government on top and a powerless state government below.
If they want to really change things, all they need to do is to sit and look at the 68 items of power, and decide which ones that shouldn’t be exercised at the federal level, and they are many – health, education drivers licence. What is the federal government legislating on drivers licence; what is the FRSC doing as an agency of the federal government? What is the federal government legislating on marriage, which is a local government issue anywhere in the world? In exercising of federal power, the federal government encroaches deeply into state power. Anything that is more efficiently and effectively done at state level should be yanked off from the Exclusive List and transferred to the Concurrent List, and in the Concurrent List, they should drop the name, ‘Concurrent’ and call it State List, so that there will be two lists: Federal List (remove Exclusive) and State List.
About ten years ago, I had drawn up a bill entitled, “Devolution of Political Power Act” and sent to NASS. If they search for it, they will see it. It is very simple to transfer things that should be at the federal level to the state, and then you balance the federation. But now, the federation is balanced in a lopsided way in favour of the federal government. Once that is done, you give real power to the state governors and they can access their resources with the exclusion of the federal government that can attend to matters concerning federal issues like immigration, diplomatic issues, international relations, defence, passport, CBN, printing of money. Those are federal issues, but there are so many state things like issuing of banking licence, registration of business name. Why should the federal government register a business name in Nteje, which is just about 20 miles from Onitsha? In doing this, you stifle business. You now pass a new Company and Allied Matters Act that gives comprehensive power to federal government to control businesses across Nigeria.
It is not a big issue really, it is the fact that we don’t have the statesman-like politicians to tackle this issue and put it to rest once and for all, so that the energy that distracts under the federal volcano can be released in a massive blowout. Nigeria is a great country, jut that it is in lockdown like COVID-19.
Instead of going through another cycle of constitution amendment, couldn’t the 2014 Confab report be applied?
If I have the power, I would not even bother about the Confab report; I will do exactly what I have just told you. It is not rocket science. Take the constitution and conduct an audit from number one to 68 and ask yourself which power should be on the federal list. You ask, should issues like drivers’ licence and others I have just highlighted be on the federal list? The second problem is that the governments of Nigeria, federal and 36 states, they need to clarify what economic direction that they wish to go. Because this sometimes welfarist, socialist system that is a labour market approach also causes confusion.
It is best for the National Economic Council to redefine Nigeria’s economic philosophy because if you look at the current economic plan, which was raised in March as result of COVID-19 by the federal government that is the Economic Sustainability Plan, 90 per cent of it contains very laudable policy programmes, but I’m surprised that the government thinks that best way to do it is like delivering over 5,000 solar systems across Nigeria. While would the federal government do it? Many businesses could do that. Why would federal government want to build 300,000 houses? Federal government already has enough work to keep it occupied. When the federal government is engaged in policy work, executing, regulating, it has little time to be efficient as a business operator. If you get what I call the political economy, the constitutional framework and the economic framework right, then we can say we are on our way to revive the Nigeria experiment. But now, both political and economic frameworks are completely out of sync, which is why, Nigerians oppose electricity hike and removal of fuel subsidy because they don’t trust government. Speaking for myself, it is theoretical a good policy because federal government cannot sustain subsidy just because it doesn’t have money; secondly, subsidy was abused and was enjoyed by very few Nigerians by bringing in petroleum products. If the subsidy was benefiting 100 people while should it be retained when 200 million people are suffering? The problem is that government was not communicating what it was doing properly and there was trust deficit. No one believes government. On electricity, the same thing, as no one wants to use generator. For instance, according to Birsmask Rewane, if you power a 100 KVA generator for one day in Ikoyi, that will cost you N25, 000, but if you power up with ‘NEPA’ even with the current increase, it will cost you about N8, 000. So if you are a rational person, you will go for NEPA. But how do we know that with this increase we are going to see 24 hours electricity, which is the challenge. So there is a big trust deficit. No one believes government because we have been here when the East-West road has been under construction for 20 years; the Ajaokuta steel mill for the last 40 years; the Enugu-Onitsha road for the past 40 years; Ibadan- Lagos expressway for the last 30 years. So, nobody believes government. This policy may be good but the manner of communication in a country that already is ethnocentric and divided is a very challenging process.
The Northern Elders have dismissed the constitution amendment, saying it is waste of time and resources. In the same vein, Afenifere said they would not be involved, do you think the NASS can go far given this scenario?
What I have seen from experience is that if the political will is not there to carryout constitutional reforms, it will not happen. So we need the president to be on board. If President Jonathan was on board, after all, we finished the work and gave it to him; the only other thing he needed to do was to execute it, but he didn’t. So no matter the talk that takes place; this one taking place in the NASS, if the president is not on board, you are just wasting time.
I don’t think just going to reform the constitution is the way to go, what is important is a national conversation; a real national conversation that comes from the ground up led by the sub nationalities, Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum, Ohanaeze, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum, etc. It is their own forces that will galvanise it. But, how far are these sub national entities connecting their programmes to the ground? We don’t have enough energy from the people to make it a national issue. It is just an Abuja issue. The NASS will sit; they don’t represent anybody. I don’t even know who represents me in Lagos and at my home in Onitsha. So, it is an issue only in Abuja. So, the political power can afford to ignore it. But if you have a real groundswell opinion mobilised by the sub national groups; a real groundswell of support for a truly and autonomous constitution, where you have 60, 70, 80 million people like the Black Lives Movement thing in US. But if it were only three or four people, it wouldn’t work, but it was galvanized by millions of people on the streets, that is why Trump took notice.
But, if leaders of these sub nationalities gather in Lagos, Abuja or anywhere and issue press statement without the thing getting down, that if I go to my village in Onitsha, everybody is talking about constitution reforms, then you know you have a national movement, otherwise, it is a waste of time because no politician will like to whittle down his power, none. Why would the president wish to shrink his power; why would a senator wish to shrink his power?
So, this thing will not work, unless we convert it to a national process, and you know the political parties are not ready to do that because they represent nothing except their own personal interests, otherwise how would Obaseki who was in APC is now in PDP and Ize-Iyamu who was in PDP is now in APC. This shows you that political parties have no ideological base, and it is about personal power; if the political parties are not fighting for change, who will?
If the constitutional reform process is like, just take Edo State as an example, where at campaign grounds, I see how mobilised the people are to vote for either Obaseki or Ize-Iyamu. Imagine if this campaign in Edo was now happening across Nigeria and people are talking about wanting a new constitution, then that is real peoples power. But if you don’t have peoples power except the ACF power, Ohanaeze power, Afenifere power, PNADEF power, MBF power, that have no taproots into the communities, nothing will happen.
This may be hard to come by, so we still have a long way to go?
Absolutely, we have a long way to go. We are still in the tunnel, a long way to come out of it.
The Water Resource Bill that was killed in the 8th NASS has reemerged and this is overstretching the polity as various groups kick against its passage into law. This is coming when people are talking of reducing the power at the centre. What is your position on this?
That is precisely the point I have been making. Until political powers at the centre recognise that they don’t need more power would there be change. There is enough work on the plate of the federal government not to put hand on water resources that is matter for the state, unless it is international waters, that is different.
If it is international waters I can understand. There are ten water zones in Nigeria that go from inland waterways right up to the new maritime zone act. The federal government controls some inland waterways to the maritime zone. How can that be? For instance, what is the business of federal government with River Niger? The one passing Anambra should be Anambra and the one passing through the next state should be for that state. They can now form Niger Delta river basin commission for all the states contiguous to River Niger. They form the commission for the harnessing of all the resources of the River Niger. When the federal government created Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), they usurp all these powers, but can they really superintend over all these internal waterways, they can’t. The extensive power of the federal government to the exclusion of the states create imbalance, where nothing is efficiently done either by the federal government or the state government level. Except the federal government hands off, but it will not because it sees these as source of political party favouritism.
The only way we can break this jinx is if we are lucky to find a political movement that is genuine on the land and that calls for attention of the problem. Just like when Labour was Labour and not today where you have so called strikes and after two days they go back to work. When Students Union Movement was Students Union Movement, they shook the system and the system listened. Remember Ali Must Go. We need people populism to change things or good political leadership. But, we lack both at this time. That is the problem.
The Middle Belt, especially Benue State, says the Bill is an attempt to bring back RUGA and give the Benue river basin to Fulani herdsmen to graze. Do you share in this sentiment?
Those are smaller issues in a larger cancerous problem. Apart from RUGA, what are the other problems? There are so many problems and they manifest in different parts of legislation. If Nigeria were a patient and I’m diagnosing, it has a very complex multiple organ challenge; the heart is bad, the kidney is bad, the liver is bad, the lung is bad. RUGA may just be the kidney, you can’t cure the kidney when the heart is bad, when the lung is bad and when the liver is bad. It is holistic national problem, and at the centre of it is to limit the power of the federal government. It is not necessarily to pick one example only, there are so many. The example you give could slightly be politicized, what about oil resources, what about solid minerals, what about education? They are many. It is the realisation of that the federal government and the state governments as comprised in Nigeria cannot be stable unless it balances the power in the federation. That is the prescription that I will give as a medical doctor treating Nigeria on a sick bed.
You need to spread out political power so that it can be evenly and efficiently conducted at different levels. The so-called principle of subsidiarity, the government does best at what it can do the more local it is. All local issues should go to local government, likewise the state and federal. So, when the federal is acting in our national interest, no state government will be talking about state army. It is clear that our territorial integrity is best handled by the national army, but policing that is community police will do best to detect crime in the local government because they are part of the community than federal police. If the federal government or federal police purports to use only 300,000 police to superintend detection of crime across the entire Nigeria, it will fail and that is why policing is a failure. There is nobody that cannot be sorry for the IGP. How can he stay in Abuja and monitor policing across Nigeria, it is not possible. Those are the core challenges we need to deal with, how to give power to the relevant autonomous government units that best deliver it.
What is the federal government talking about primary healthcare? That is basic healthcare in local government. How does the federal government come into primary education from Abuja, and wanting to dictate the syllabus of primary school in Zungeru? How many primary schools can you manage? So it is about giving to the state and the local government sufficient power that will enable them to be efficient and focusing on what you at the federal level can do best. That is the solution to Nigeria’s problem; no more, no less.
You have given insight into solutions to myriads of problems bedeviling Nigeria, if these are not applied, what is the hope for the country?
None. I don’t see where the momentum is coming from. The momentum must come from inward. Momentum means the exercise of sufficient credible force to represent a threat to the person confronted. You can’t go to newspapers and be shouting that you are going to do this or that. That is not momentum. It is when you exhibit a sufficient credible force enough to inspire and invoke fear to the person confronted and that is why Donald Trump was terrified of the Black Lives Movement. There were about 50 million people in the streets, are you going to carry all of them to jail? They changed the way Americans see things. They committed their lives to it, but here we don’t have committed social leaders neither do we have committed political leaders who will swear to fight on even though it will cost their lives.
The sad news is that we are not changing, and unless a miracle happens, which is possible or prophetic leader just lands from somewhere, which is also possible but on current form, I haven’t seen any miracle, neither have I seen any prophetic leader coming. Therefore, my prognosis is that fundamental change of the type we are describing, constitutional reform is not going to be feasible; it will be a mirage to us.