By Sunday Ani
Former chieftain of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), Comrade Linus Ezeala Okoroji has again called for a restructured Nigeria, insisting that it is the only step that could fast-track the country’s overall development.
He made the call recently in Lagos during the celebration of his 70 birthday anniversary. He spoke on the quest for the South East to produce the next president of Nigeria in 2023, the country’s rising debt profile as well as the #ENDSARS protest among others.
There has been so much noise about true federalism; what is your own understanding of the phrase true federalism?
True federalism was what Nigeria practised at the time I was born. I was about 10 years old when Nigeria got independence. We went for the first independence anniversary in 1960 and we thought at that time that Nigeria was going to be very great as God created it to be. But when the military came, the first thing they did was to throw away the constitution of the people which was the agreement that brought them together. It was that agreement that brought them together, not the amalgamation of 1914 because we knew that even with the amalgamation, Nigeria was not one. So, they had to agree for the purpose of independence and then gave themselves the 1959 constitution which ushered in the independence of Nigeria. But when the military came in 1966, they threw it away and brought in a unitary government.
So, where did we miss it as a country?
We missed it at the point where we began to develop the instinct that a particular nation in Nigeria wants to dominate others. This brought about each tribe or nationality also feeling that when they have opportunity they should dominate others.
What is the way out?
The way out is to convoke a sovereign national conference; a conference that will give Nigeria a constitution. The current 1999 Constitution, which we are using, is a product of a military decree by Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998 and before they left the office, they told Nigerians that it should be converted to a constitution and that was what Nigeria converted as its constitution. It was a decree.
We have had several conferences in the past like the 2014 national conference, but…
You see, those conferences were government-organised. What we need is a conference by the people and for the people; it doesn’t need to be sponsored by the government. Each nationality will elect people who will represent them. It is not something that the government will do by appointment or by calling people to come and write the constitution for the people; it is not correct.
Some Nigerians have been urging the government to make public the report of the 2014 conference and gazette it; do you agree with them?
The error of Jonathan was that he had about six months after the conference to publish its report but he didn’t do that; he waited. He was carried away by the euphoria of getting reelected; so he was seeking the opportunity to continue ruling Nigeria for a second term, but unfortunately, he didn’t get it. Like we say, procrastination and laziness are twin evils that don’t help anybody. If that conference would have achieved anything close to what we are talking about, Jonathan missed the point and he expected a new government to implement it; it is not very easy.
So, what do you expect the President to do in all of these, particularly with regards to the security situation and other political uncertainties in the country today?
At my level, I think Nigeria is not about President Buhari; it is about the Nigerian people because Buhari will come and go but Nigeria will remain. In the next three years, he will leave the government and somebody else will come. It is like the American system, where the current election has not gone the way the president wants, but what the American people need is what they will get. If the system is well built, the individual only comes and goes but cannot change the system.
This idea of restructuring seems to be a Southern concern because you know the position recently canvassed by the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), that restructuring Nigeria will amount to splitting the country; what do you have to say about that?
What we have been saying, which I am still saying is we don’t talk about domination. I am not saying that the Igbo should dominate Nigeria because I am an Igbo man. What we are saying is what will benefit the people and improve the life of the majority; that is what is important. So, the idea of Arewa talking about splitting Nigeria is even evil. Russia, that is the USSR as you know eventually split into about five or six countries today, if not more than that. Yugoslavia was also split. So, what makes it imperative that Nigeria must remain together? We are different nations but we have come together; we will like to live together. So, can we negotiate how we can live together for the benefit of all? And they are pursuing what will benefit the Arewa and that is why since they captured the presidency, the leader who is a Northerner has been trying to occupy all federal offices with Northerners. That is not right. There is no competition for offices for the good of the people and that is not correct. We are not thinking of what favours an individual, but what will be good for all. Look at what happened recently with the #ENDSARS protest; in a decentralised true federal system, the damage wouldn’t have gone round the country. It could have been one state or two and then the other states that are doing well will not be affected. But here, it affected everywhere and that is a sign that we still need a decentralised governance structure. And the unfortunate thing is that the political elite in Nigeria pursue wealth at the expense of the country. They are not interested in the good of the country and that is why we have the National assembly where my own brothers represent us, but do not say anything about the good of Nigeria? We are talking of restructuring; is there no Igbo man, Yoruba man or Idoma man in the National Assembly, who can also talk about restructuring? It appears we are speaking outside as if they are different people. They are not colonial masters; they are Nigerians too.
There seems to be a public outcry now about the ceaseless borrowing by the current government, forcing some people to conclude that the country had reached its borrowing limit; do you agree with that submission?
In fact, there is no country that does not borrow; the important thing is how what is borrowed is used. How impactful is what is borrowed in the system? Then, you can always borrow; even an individual borrows. I tell my brothers who are in business to borrow; because when you make a profit of N10 with borrowed money, it becomes an addition to what you already had and that is what it is.
There is a growing agitation among the Igbo that almost every zone has produced the president of Nigeria since the return to democracy in 1999 except the South East zone. Now, the Igbo are saying that for equity, justice and fairness, they should be allowed to produce the next president in 2023; do you share the same sentiment?
I still insist that what is important to us at this time is true federalism; a decentralised government where the Igbo will be in charge of their own economy. Whoever or wherever the president comes from is immaterial if there is true federalism. The only reason we keep arguing where the president comes from is because of the wealth sharing; that is the problem we have. If it is in a clime where people go into politics for the good of the people and not for their own selfish wealth acquisition, these issues wouldn’t arise. The Igbo man you want to elect, how would he think good of the Igbo man himself and even Nigeria? So, right now, what is there is about sharing the national cake; it doesn’t matter who is there. But, I am not in any way saying that it is fair and just to keep the Igbo man out of that office; there is no justice in that but the Igbo man should compete among the nationalities. The Igbo man should be given the opportunity to compete among others; it is not to give it to us as a gift. Before Alex Ekweme became the vice president, as an Igbo man, and one who is politically interested, I had never read him in any national newspaper. So, the fact that he is an Igbo man doesn’t matter? What we are saying is who can make Nigeria a place worthy of emulation by other countries? Do we have such a person as Igbo man? Let him come out and canvass what he can do. We are asking for who is ready to do things differently and that is the position. Like the youths are saying, they want to take over; the question is: how and are they ready themselves to do things differently? The youth today have been trained in such a way that all they think about is how to make money even without working and that is why there are internet frauds and all kinds of things out there.
People from other tribes in Nigeria keep saying that the Igbo are not united and that is why they have not been able to produce a president of this country; do you agree with them?
No, the Igbo are more united than any tribe in Nigeria. They are the only people in Nigeria that are organised in such a way that they have village meetings, kindred meetings and even family meetings. They have town unions even up to local government levels; who is more organised than them? The point is that the civil war affected the psyche of an Igbo man and that is just the problem. So, some of the Igbo who are in politics are only looking for what they would put in their pocket; they are not necessarily fighting for the Igbo. Talking of people who are together, there is no nationality that is as united and organised as the Igbo in Nigeria.
In the event that the current government refuses to restructure the country ahead of 2023, and the president equally refuses to sign the amended electoral bill into law, what will be the fate of Nigerians?
The president has powers but the most powerful arm of government is the legislature, the Senate. The Senate can force the president to do what the Nigerian people want and that is why I asked, are they representing us? They should find out from their constituents what they want and present it at the National Assembly. If the president refuses, Nigerians with the support of the National Assembly will react. So, the president alone cannot do what he is doing except that they brought a lot of money in the National Assembly to shut up the men there otherwise, they should think as we are thinking that Nigeria should be better for all of us.
As a chieftain of NADECO, you have always been at the forefront of true federalism; do you see Nigeria as a work in progress with the way things are going, considering the aftermath of the #ENDSARS protest?
The #ENDSARS protest was a misconceived idea. Unfortunately, those who organised it are not purely civil society people. They behaved almost like a student union because there was no leadership. You do not embark on a protest without leadership. You must have aims and objectives. Who comes out to say whether your objectives have been met or not? So, they threw Nigeria open and people who were already prepared to fight, went ahead to destroy the country’s hard earned infrastructure; that was not fair. One of the things that pained me was the destruction of the Nigeria Ports Authority. It is unfortunate because that was built by the colonial masters. They could build another one that may be elegant but it will be inferior in quality to the one destroyed.
So, what is the way forward for a better Nigeria?
The way forward is for Nigerians to take the bull by the horns. Like I have always said, in 2015 we changed from the PDP to the APC; now if Nigerians are discernible enough, we will think of another change. But the unfortunate thing is that other parties are not growing because of the Nigeria system. So, to move forward, we are saying let us decentralise governance, so that each region or zone can develop at its own pace. There should be a healthy competition. No region or zone or state should wait for the other. We truly need to decentralise our system to make it work for our benefit.