Despite the opposition of some states to the controversial Water Resources Bill, the Federal Government has declared that there is no going back on the implementation of the bill.
In this interview, Chief Ladi Williams (SAN), the first son of the late legal icon, FRA Williams, speaks on the critical areas of the constitution the National Assembly needs look into in its planned amendment in order to achieve a relatively stable polity.
Different opinions have been expressed on the desirability or otherwise of another constitution amendment being proposed by the National Assembly. Some even say the exercise is repetitive and a waste of money. What is your view on this exercise?
Once they follow the procedure, they can amend the constitution either for good or for bad. Democracy is a very expensive form of government. If the legislators feel that there are some areas that need to be addressed, they can do the amendment. But I will like them to consider everything that needs to be considered. As to whether or not it is a waste of money, presumably, they would have prepared a budget for it and make funds available so as not to disrupt other projects.
Are you of the opinion that the exercise will lead the country to a true federal system?
It depends on your definition of true federalism. At the moment, as far as I am concerned, we don’t have federal structure. The centre is too powerful. For example, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) can arrest somebody who lives in Sokoto and try him in Maiduguri. What federalism should be is that each state should be a sovereign within its own domain. You cannot legislate for a similar offence in Abuja and go after officials of a state government. Again, there are certain categories of expenditure, which only the states should embark upon. For instance, Federal Government should not have the right to legislate on matters affecting agriculture. On the issue of security, we say that the governor of a state is the Chief Security Officer of his state. But you and I know that if a governor wants to arrest a miscreant in his state, he has to get permission or approval of the Inspector General of Police, who in turn comes under the Federal Government. A state Commissioner of Police is also subject to the powers of the IGP. To that extent, we may need to re-jig some of these things. We should also confine the powers of the Supreme Court to certain constitutional matters. So, there may be a need to re-jig what we have at present to take account of the realities of our situation. We should also look at areas where there is friction between the Federal Government and the states. We also need to consider having financial restructuring. At the moment, the Federal Government takes everything under the ground, damages the areas that own the resources and then distributes the money to various states. What I will like to see is that you keep what you have on your land and then pay tax to the federal authorities. But we are doing it the other way round. And that is why Niger Delta will never develop. It will never develop with the way they are doing things. They own the oil; let them pay tax to the Federal Government and the Federal Government in turn provides security, both maritime and inland security for them. The money accruing should go to the states. What we have right now is that somebody in Kano or Sokoto or Adamawa who is given allocation of bloc of oil will bring some expatriates and sign a contract. And that is it. The fellow just continues to check his bank. He has no connection with the land whereas the people, whose land is destroyed is living in abject poverty. They get nothing more than the allocation they are getting from the Federal Government. I read in one the newspapers that Bayelsa State is broke. How can Bayelsa be broke? This is an oil producing state. How can it be broke? How can the other littoral states also be broke? This system of awarding oil blocks to individuals who merely take the money and keep the rest abroad is unjust. Bayelsa State should be filled with skyscrapers. Their children should be able to go to school on full scholarship. But they don’t have that. So, we need serious restructuring in order for Nigeria to make progress. As we are now, there will be no progress. We will just be going round the circle.
As powerful as the centre is right now, the Federal Government is still insisting on going ahead with Water Resources Bill, which most of the states are already kicking against. Will this really help the present situation of things in the country?
The states are right in kicking against the bill. The Federal Government can take care of security because they have the exclusive monopoly of the Army, Navy and Air Force. And that is the justification for the states to donate money for the Federal Government. But the federal authorities should not say that they are taking over the control of water resources. If they take over the waterway in Bayelsa now, for instance, what else is left for them? They have more water than land. You can only imagine the abject poverty there. If you go further into the Riverine areas of the state, you will see old men with skin disease because of acid rains. Yet, the authorities won’t listen to you because they are not their own people. So, we have to re-jig the structure very quickly. Giving money to the NDDC is not the solution. I am sure you’ve been following the probe of the commission. Huge amount of money voted for them just went down the drain. Sometimes the crocodile will swallow money because there is too much money in the coffers of the Federal Government. But we have to forgive ourselves because we had been under military rule for so many years. Part of what we are witnessing now is the hangover of the military rule. So, we have to forgive our people. I think we will eventually find solution to these things if we decide to stay together as one country. In Canada, they have English-speaking and French- speaking. They had a plebiscite some years ago, in which the French-speaking agitated that they wanted their own country, but lost. End of story! Great Britain produced the modern parliament – Westminster. When Scottish agitation to leave the union was too much, Cameron, the Prime Minister, had to call a plebiscite, but the Scottish nationalists also lost. Is it not time for us to have a peaceful election so that anybody who doesn’t want to continue to stay in the federation can go? Democracy implies freedom, it implies freedom of association; it implies freedom of where you want to live. Living together should not be ‘by fire, by force.’ But the dissolution has to be done peacefully. Violence only brings destruction. And we have had enough of it.
If the Federal Government insists on passing the Water Resources Bill, what option is left for the states that feel agitated?
The court is open to everybody. The court is like a market; if you have money in your pocket, you can go there and buy what you want. The courts are there to resolve disputes between persons and persons between states and states and states and federal authorities. If it is states and states that are in dispute, they go straight to the Supreme Court. If it is state versus federal authorities, you go straight to the Supreme Court. So, they should feel free to go to court.
You probably must have watched a short video clip of some Nigerians of Yoruba extraction who were agitating for Oduduwa Republic in the UK. Is it possible to achieve an enduring peace without addressing all of these areas that you have mentioned?
At the moment, nobody is satisfied with the way the country is. People are really very unhappy. I don’t think what we need to do is to put a Northerner in the ministry of petroleum or a Yoruba man in the ministry of agriculture. That will not work. Agitation for position based on ethnicity has a propensity to cause disloyalty to government. Once people are disloyal, there can be no progress. We need loyalty to have progress. It is for that reason that I am suggesting that anybody who wants to opt out voluntarily should be allowed to go without any bloodshed. Let us sit down at a roundtable and decide how we want to live together. The way we are now, a lot of people don’t seem to be happy. Once there is a new government, what people will look at is how many Igbo are there or how many Yoruba are there. We don’t look at competence any more. And competence is of the essence. Let everybody take control of the steering of the vehicle. We need an enduring arrangement that will live beyond political parties. Unless we do that, this country will deny itself of massive development. Many people don’t really care who is in charge as long as the country is being run to the satisfaction of all.
At this point in time, would you suggest a revisit of the report of the 2014 conference organized by former President Goodluck Jonathan to achieve a more relatively stable polity?
That report is dead on arrival because the delegates were not voted for. They were just handpicked. In 1979 constitution, delegates had to go home and contest. Maybe a few people were handpicked because of their expertise in constitutional matters so that they can guide and direct. The only way out is for us to have a UN conducted election that will elect delegates so that people can have confidence in the process.
Commentaries are still running on the Edo State governorship election. Many are applauding President Muhammadu Buhari for allowing the INEC to do its job. Is that the way democracy should run?
I will like to say that the president must have been directed by the Almighty God. Nobody has monopoly of what is right. So, if you are doing what is right, it means Almighty God has a hand in it. We all saw the conduct of the election on television, and by and large, it was free and fair. Unless it is patently and obviously rigged, we should develop the culture of accepting results of election as the will of the people. We saw people jubilating after the declaration of the election results and they can only ascribe it to INEC. INEC is an agency of the Federal Government and I don’t think the Federal Government will direct its chairman on what to do. I think that was a genuine election. But we have our way of doing things. Nobody wants to accept defeat.