•I warned him on activities of Fulani herdsmen
From Jacob Edi, Abuja
Statesman and Second Republic Minister of Steel, Paul Unongo believes that the present administration headed by President Muhammadu Buhari should as a matter of urgency convoke a national conference. The octogenarian who said he has played active roles in Nigeria’s political development since the pre-independence days contends that there are no tactics that have not been used to address the Nigerian problem except a sovereign national conference.
In this interview, he speaks on various national issues including the state of the nation’s economy. Excerpts:
What are your reflections on the state of the Nation under President Muhammadu Buhari?
In some parameters, I am encouraged; in others, I am very sad. I would like to put it my own way, the essence of government, the essence of organizational thinking of government is that it should so organize society so that the sovereign people that give it power should not suffer too much. If he can, he should make them happy, reduce the level of anxiety and poverty and an evolving society like ours, make the economic decision that would spread out the benefit of an economic development, commensurate with the possibilities that exist within the nation state. He should guarantee the people security and there should be fairness.
Any government that is not organizing itself to make people happy, to make people contented, in my judgment, needs to readjust itself otherwise; it can be described fairly that it has failed.
One of the roles of government is to reduce the level of poverty and improve economic development; therefore, any government that does not make people its content, in my judgment, has failed. In the aspect of tackling terrorism, they have done well, because they have been able to contain the Boko Haram sect.
In the aspect of the economy, the government appears to have reversed policies so many times. When an administration promises A or B during campaigns, then they go back on their promises, they confuse people. When this administration came in, it had so much good will because of the excesses of the previous administration, but when they started governing, people began to notice many inconsistencies. I warned Buhari on this economic situation. I wrote a paper and warned this government to act quickly. Very soon, the United States would declare a policy that would make our oil valueless.
We used to sell our own crude at about $140 per barrel, but now we beg and sell at $40. Is it the fault of the government? Yes, to some extent. The government should have anticipated the probability of this happening because of three reasons: they should have watched the global trend and the activities in the United States; the verbal pronouncement of leaders of industries and leaders of politics in the advanced countries particularly in the United States. These people said we are going to cut down, we are not going to be importing oil again and we seem to have just kept quiet and said let’s watch what happens.
Is there still a Middle-belt region?
The middle belt of the North was organized via the larger middle-belt congress to oppose the extreme North that was in power, because they felt they kept them out of power. And those sentiments are creeping back just one year into General Buhari’s administration. People in the middle-belt are saying that this is not their government.
If we are one with the north, how come we are being killed daily by Fulani herdsmen and there is no action from the government. In my state, we don’t have militant activities, but we have a new phenomenon that for over 100, 200 years, we never had. The Fulani have become so aggressive that they come with sophisticated weapons, that they kill people anyway they want. I have tried to tell the President that the Fulani herdsmen crisis should not be ignored because it can create a resurgence of militancy against his administration.
I believe in Buhari, but he does not have good handlers. Politics is all about perception and the perception of people about this administration is that there is unfairness, and they are tired of keeping quiet. It is this that history will judge and would be used in determining whether he has succeeded or failed.
The perception people have about this administration is that it is parochial and employment into government agencies is limited to the North. But when you come to the North, northerners are saying no, it is not to the North, but a particular section of the North. When you go to that section of the North, the people there say no, it is not us, it is within the family; they begin to give statistics like Junaid did. The handlers of the president must call the attention and tell him that this is a serious issue.
These problems point to a collapse of the system and a recession. It is either that Buhari has allowed things to fester, or maybe his handlers have pocketed him. I don’t know why these things are happening like that.
Shouldn’t this administration do something else more than talk about corruption?
I don’t know whether I can honestly say Buhari has spent too much time on corruption. What has killed Nigeria is corruption and there are so many aspects of corruption and when you define corruption properly, it is the number one problem of Nigeria.
Do you agree that Nigeria should be divided along ethnic and religious lines?
It is the elite in their contest for capturing power that go out of their way and scare people with this rhetoric. The Southerners that were in government who have billions of dollars in their bank accounts till today are not suffering. They are using those billions to sabotage Buhari’s administration so that they can get an opportunity to come back. They are using this to make the division exacerbated.
When the going is tough for them because of their crimes, they now want us, the ordinary people to fight with them, but they never fought with us and they never shared their money with us. I don’t have a bank account with billions in it. I was a university lecturer and look at what people have and they have no patriotism. I am a Tiv man, I come from Lord Lugard’s northern Nigeria. I have grievances against this administration as a Tiv person. Gowon led the war and I believe the Tiv people of the middle belt made the greatest sacrifice during the civil war to keep Nigeria as one.
Don’t you then support calls for restructuring?
We have restructured so many times, so let us know what we are talking about as a country. Britain caricatured Nigeria by making this tripod so unstable structurally by just sheer land mass. The North occupied almost three-quarter of the land mass called Nigeria; so how can you have a balanced and stable federation and then you allow colonial politics to move into the democratic politics of the indigenes? They said Nigeria is made up of a tripod of three tribes; the north, which was caricatured as Hausa Fulani, the West which is the Yoruba and the East which is the Igbo. How factual is that?
We who make up the smaller tribes tried to warn Britain in the London constitutional conference of 1957/1958. The presentation made by the United Middle Belt Congress was written by me and we advocated that Nigeria should be divided into more regions. We said that we in the middle belt are not Fulani, neither are we Hausas. We warned that the arrangement as it was would cause instability. It is not the formation of a Nigeria that is wrong; if it was, we wouldn’t have fought a civil war and people wouldn’t have put up so much resistance. Biafrans were principally Igbo and they fought with a resilience that impressed everybody in the world. Then the federalists fought the war with a resilience that shocked the whole world.
Nigeria today is not a mere geographic expression like Awolowo said. The Igbo lost approximately one million people during the war, and the Tiv lost approximately one million people. We inter marry with the Igbo and we speak languages together. So, what we need is to sit down and work out how best we can be fair to ourselves and how best we can harness the resources of Nigeria. We need to give the people with competence and capacity a chance to help develop this country. It is not just swallowing every single theory thrown at us by the IMF which is based on a developing economy that is based in Europe and America. Let us sit together and sort out our problems.
Do you think disintegration is possible in Nigeria?
We settled the issue of Nigeria being one nation on the battle field. Why should I now go and tell historians that I killed three million people to ensure a nation state, and because of my wickedness and greed, I turn around 40 or 50 years later to tell people, oh, I just joked; I killed three million people. So, let’s go away and now be 500 tribal nations. I am not prepared to do that. So, I support convening of a Sovereign National Conference by the nationalities of Nigeria because that is the euphemism. I don’t know why people are afraid of a Sovereign National conference. They say we have elected people, let the parliament change the constitution. The best constitution that could have come for this country was the one that Abacha did that people didn’t like. If he was allowed to propagate the constitution that he fashioned for Nigeria, it would have been a great constitution.
My own quarrel with this administration is perception is important; they should pay attention to perception. When Buhari saw that cattle were being rustled in Zamfara, he felt so strongly that he needed to don a military uniform and lead a military campaign to flush out the people that are rustling cattle. But when Fulani herdsmen come to Benue and kill human beings, he does not appear in the same military uniform and come to Benue to flush out the killer herdsmen. If this country as organized is not good enough, let’s sit down together and organize within the context of Nigeria. We can rearrange it to suit our peculiar situation.
Nigerian people should call a sovereign national conference, sit down and talk about our togetherness. We must be together because we bought that at a price, too much to give it away. We bought the Nigerian nation with the blood of three million human beings. The Nigeria Awolowo that he described in his book as a mere geographic expression doesn’t exist.
The Nigeria you have today is a country distilled from the blood, the sweat and the killings of three million Nigerians; that Nigeria is one which I can never support anybody to break up.
It may have been something which the British created but we consolidated that ‘mistake’ and I don’t think it is a mistake; we consolidated it in a very terrible brutal civil war.
We fought a civil war on two issues; should Nigeria be one entity? Other people said no, let us totally disintegrate, which is the position of some of the people who are talking of restructuring again today. It is not good to break up completely, so we fought on the basis of that. We were in the trenches for three years. Three million people were killed for Nigeria to survive, the genius that was displayed on both sides of the civil war consolidated the belief in the nation state of Nigeria.
Is it a perfect state now? No, it is not. Are there certain things we can improve? Yes. Should we hold a sovereign national conference to discuss these things? Yes. It is important so that we can improve on how we can live in a happier and more prosperous and progressive Nigeria, yes.
Can this be achieved by breaking up? No. It cannot be achieved by breaking up because we cannot bring back the three million people who died, and the terrible sufferings some of us were put through. Our children must know this quite clearly. Nations that fought civil wars, like America, still have problems, but they have allowed individuals, and organisations within them to propel America. They sent a man to the moon and they are now trying to send a man to Mars. They have now made us to know that there is no limit to what the human mind can do.
There are Nigerians contributing creditably to the greatness of the United States right now. In NASA, at their space agency, there are Nigerian scientists there. What I want is a country that would encourage people like that to come here and their genius to move this country to be the great black power that was destined by God to be. I don’t want 500 countries exploding from this country and I will not attend a conference to break up this country. Anybody trying to break up this country will have to kill people like me.
Haven’t we become more sophisticated after the civil war that every part cannot remain dependent on the other?
If you were sophisticated, why would somebody steal public money and put in his account? You are not manufacturing, you are not investing, you are not creating jobs, you are not expanding the economy and you are not pushing the welfare of the people forward. How can you develop a country when you don’t have energy and there are people here that can take Nigeria and deliver energy to us, they are doing it.
I know an Igbo boy in San Francisco who is doing very well. I know a Tiv man in Pennsylvania who is doing wonders there. Why don’t you call these people and ask them to bring their talents to develop this country?
Our problems are those who steal and those who want to rule us without telling us why they want to rule. Our problems are those people who have opportunities but are messing us up. Let us sit down and talk and let us give a chance to people who are really qualified to lead us, and we have them in plentiful supply in Nigeria. Our people are excelling elsewhere, so we should create the conditions so that they can come back to this country and cause it to excel.
How can a country like Nigeria invest the amount of billions of dollars we invested in a simple thing such as the generation of electricity and supply to the moribund industries of this country? Despite the many years of the military, we have not been able to solve that problem. It is an insult on our intellect.