A Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Federal Commissioner for Works under General Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu has called on the government to do something about ethnicity in the country, insisting that this is the major problem facing Nigeria.
He spoke to Sunday Sun on the problems of ethnicity and the creation of the Nigerian Armed Forces Resettlement Centre (NAFRC) Oshodi, 45 years ago. Excerpts:
What is your reaction to the present state of the country, especially the fact that we have been divided along ethnic lines?
I want to say that this is not the Nigeria of our dream; this is not the country we dreamt of, ethnicity is eating it deep; it is like a dagger which has been stuck deep in the budding politics of this land. We emphasise where we come from; our ethnicity rather than being proud to be a Nigerian. You call yourself a Nigerian, so you should behave and act like a Nigerian everywhere. I will use this opportunity to say that we should leave ethnicity to where it belongs and where does it belong, culture, not something to get power. The Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, Bini, Hausa and Fulani, we were created to live together as one. Afenifere, Northern Elders Forum, Ohanaeze, and all the ethnic groups should exist in the cultural arena and not political space. Religion should not divide us. The Lagos I was born in, we inter-marry, Muslims, Christians inter-marry and religion had never been the factor to be considered. Then as a young man, at Christmas and New Year, we Muslims go to the Cathedral Church of Christ at Marina to celebrate with them and welcome the new year. One of my elders told me that he used to drive to the Mosque to join them to eat Massa. That was Lagos that I was born in, so religion should not divide us, rather it should unite us, so religion also should be put outside the political space. We can go on and on, I just mentioned those two issues, which seem to divide us today, religion should not divide us, ethnicity should not divide us, we are all compelled to live together as Nigerians.
How do you see Nigeria presently, especially with the security problems experienced around the country?
The country is very much unstable now, unstable politically, and there had been interference from those who want to promote ethnicity to divide us, interference by those who want to promote religious warfare, we are one country, we are one people, we are condemned to remain as one country. The idea of being an Igbo man or being from Asaba etc; should be buried and a Nigerian is a Nigerian and should be proud to be a Nigerian anywhere. Like a Chinese will say I am a Chinese, he will not talk about any other place, but China. He is a Chinese anywhere, the Indian the same, so a Nigerian should be proud to say I am a Nigerian. It is high time the government abolished state of origin or local government, a Nigerian is a Nigerian anywhere. I wish most of us will be proud to say ‘we are Nigerians’ and work towards it; patriotism, love of the country is very important, patriotism is in short supply today, there are many Yoruba, Igbo and Fulani, but very few Nigerians. So, we should go back to the roots and be proud to be a Nigerian and serve Nigeria.
What is your take on the huge salary of the legislators?
I want to use this opportunity to talk to our legislators about the constituency allowance they collect. This constituency allowance they get outside their salaries, whether it’s APC or PDP, they all conspire to take too much of our money. With my experience in government, it is government that carries out projects, not legislators. Lawmakers are to make laws, not to execute projects, so I hope that the new government will address these issues as it affects the economy and trim down the earnings of the legislators, both federal and state.
What is your comment on killings by herdsmen in the country?
Religion had no connection with herdsmen attacks and banditry; no one should attach any religious meaning to the acts. To end the menace which has spread across the Southwest, governors of the northern states should consider educating the Almajiris, education is lacking in the northern part of Nigeria. The governors should consider their education as priority and urgently establish primary, secondary and tertiary institutions to assist the children of the Almajiris to appreciate the value of education. This will help to educate the children of the Almajiris and herdsmen in the country. They cannot be herdsmen forever. They are currently being oppressed. So, if we all educate them, cases of kidnapping and armed robbery will reduce in the country.
How do you see development at the Armed Forces Resettlement Centre Oshodi, was it the dream resettlement centre envisaged?
First of all, I must commend the commandant for what I have seen and also going to see more of this centre, it was a modest beginning some 45 years ago when I had the honour of presenting the memorandum to set up this centre to the Federal Executive Council, for those members of the Armed Forces who were being demobilized. It was a small centre then, that was the last time I saw it, I saw the centre under construction. As I came driving in and seeing the width of the centre and I am going to see more before I leave. The centre did not wound up after the initial attempt to help demobilized soldiers to settle, to learn some skills so that they can fit into the society. The idea of the centre came as a result of the civil war, during the war I saw a little bit of action and that was when Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, announced that he was in charge of Enugu, that is, Enugu is under Biafran control; the Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon told me to assemble some journalists to see Enugu and prove to the world that Biafra was not in charge of that city. That we did easily because the international press were already in Enugu and we flew to Makurdi with a small aircraft and entered Enugu by road. As we are getting to Enugu we sighted the rebels in the bush and we got to Enugu and we addressed the press with then Major Theophilus Danjuma. At the time we arrived at Enugu, the city was a ghost town and people had left the town because of the war. And after we left the city, the rebels commenced a desperate move to prove that they were in control. That the centre has grown, not only in seize, but also in population and have continued to grow up till today much larger than what it was some years ago, has surprised me and I commend the Armed Forces, particularly the Commandant for this great work at the centre. Those military men who are about to retire come here to learn skills that will enable them settle.