…Says, those opposing restructuring are mischievous or ignorant
As a young member of the inner circle of the Awolowo school of thought, erudite Professor of History, Banji Akintoye, shared in the lofty dream to build Nigeria as an emerging power not only in the Black continent but the world at large. But today, he is unhappy with the turn of events. In this interview, he predicted an imminent break up of the country, unless the leaders are ready to do the needful.
What is the fundamental reason for the elusive peace and unity in Nigeria as a nation?
The fundamental problem is that Nigeria is not and can never be a nation. It is a country of many nations. These nations had long existed thousands of years before the British came and amalgamated them together to form a country. The only hope for the country to live harmoniously is for us to recognize and respect each nation. If the people who found themselves in control of the affairs of the country have come to the conclusion to destroy, push down or suppress these nations in order to build the unity of the country, they will create serious problems. And that is what we are seeing now. When the British amalgamated Nigeria in 1914, they had no idea of what to do with Nigeria. They had conquered Nigeria from the North and called it Northern protectorate and then eastern and western protectorates which they combined to form Southern protectorate. The only thing that was common to both the Eastern and Western protectorates at that time was Christianity. There was nothing else common to them.
The Yoruba were Yoruba. They had developed over millennia to be the most urbanized people in Africa with highly sophisticated political system.
They were different from the rest. The Edo although smaller than the Yoruba had also developed a kingdom. The other larger nation was the Igbo who didn’t have the same level of political development but they were living happily in their own country. So, we were really scattered nations. The North was even more complex than the South. Nigeria is a country of so many nationalities. Each nationality has its own language, culture and homeland territory where they had lived for thousands of years. Ambitious people may create country around these nations, but they will always disintegrate. There were great empires in the past. Where are they today? The one you know most is the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire contained thousands of different nationalities speaking their own languages. Where is the Roman Empire today? It disintegrated. The nationalities are indigestible. Nobody can destroy them. The only way you can make them live together in one country is to respect them and manage the affairs of the country is such a way that that respect is obvious.
In effect, Nigeria’s break up is imminent?
It looks obvious to most people. Even the United Nations’ assessment published a few months ago says Nigeria as a country is constantly producing protests of people who feel they are being marginalized, cheated and even targeted for destruction. The world knows what is happening to Nigeria. Do I want Nigeria to exist as a country? Yes, of course, I do. I love Nigeria; I don’t want it to break up. But do I believe it will live for long the way it is being managed? I don’t think so. This is not a question of what I wish; it is a question of what I can see. It is not a question of wanting Nigeria to disintegrate. The thing is that I fear the way we are handling the affairs of this country it is likely to disintegrate soon. I know restructuring will go a long way to prevent that. And that is why I am supporting restructuring. If we do that, we can settle down. Does that mean Nigeria will exit forever? I don’t know. I doubt it. But the important thing is that it will not disintegrate now.
Yoruba have been in the forefront of campaign for restructuring. But some opinion leaders in the North see the clamour as way of blackmailing them. What’s your take?
Yoruba people are not blackmailing anybody. We have contributed enough to the development of this country. We have given a lot to the making of Nigeria. So, we don’t want Nigeria to break up. Other people are saying they want to quit. Have you heard any Yoruba group talking of secession? We don’t talk about secession. We want Nigeria to prosper. We are a people who love progress and development. Yoruba are not used to being poor. Before the British came, we were already a comfortable country. We had developed the most successful Agriculture in African continent which made it possible for us to build cities and towns. When we finally had the chance to manage our own lives from 1952, everybody could see that Yoruba were eager to move forward. When people were thinking about how to start school, Awolowo said each child in Yorubaland must go to school. So, a country that will keep Yoruba in it must be ready to develop. It is not a question of intimidating anybody. In any case, development is not something that will be for the Yoruba people alone. It will be for everybody. Everybody will prosper. Go and look at the literature, who are the people who talk about poverty in the North? It is Yoruba intellectuals. We talk more about poverty in the North than any other intellectuals in the country.
We are worried about it. The North used to produce a lot of wealth. In the First Republic under Ahmadu Bello, the North used to produce a lot of wealth. All of that has been destroyed by over centralization. We want that to go so that the North can go back and begin to become productive again. Some people are comfortable with crowd of Almajiri and beggars on the streets. We, Yoruba, are not. We don’t think any citizen of our country should be that poor. We are not intimidating or forcing anybody to accept restructuring. We only feel that it is the way forward for everybody.
Many leaders of thought in the North have said it time and again that they needed proper and clearer definition of what you people mean by the word restructuring. Isn’t it high time you did that so everybody can understand?
That’s a legitimate request. They are saying the right thing. You cannot quarrel with that kind of question. But we’ve been trying to do that. I have written articles upon articles on it. I have written more than 150 articles in the recent times on restructuring. I wrote one that was published last week. People have been calling me to say this is wonderful. We are doing all this just to explain what restructuring is all about.
Will it then be right then to say that those who claim ignorance of the meaning are doing so for mischief or they are not reading?
There are people who are not reading and there are people who are playing mischief because they don’t want it done. When people were agitating for independence, Yoruba organization, Egbe omo Oduduwa, was the first in the country who put forward a well written proposal for a federation to the British government. And when the Action Group came up later, they followed exactly what Egbe omo Oduduwa had written. So, it is not that Yoruba people are intimidating anybody, we are anxious to see the success of this country. Sometimes, one can be frustrated when one hears some people saying they don’t understand restructuring.
Is it true that Yoruba led the agitation against regionalism which some leaders are now advocating?
What our leaders told the British government is that we must go beyond these three regions. They argued that the protectorates were not the fundamental units of Nigeria. They told them that the nationalities that existed on ground before they created the protectorates were the fundamental units and not the protectorates that they converted into regions.
So, it is true that the Yoruba led the agitation for the break up of the regions?
No, we didn’t agitate for the break up of the regions. We agitated for respect for each group of nations. We said: ‘we Yoruba in the South-west will be one region. The people who are part of Western region but are not Yoruba should also be one region. Each of them was too small to be a region, combine them to form a region.’
In the same way, we advocated for a separate region for the minorities in the South of Eastern region. We told them: ‘let Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers people have a region of their own. Each of them may be too small to be a region, but when you combine them, they would be a viable region. Then, let the people of North-east, Kanuri and the related people who are asking for a region of their own have a region of their own.’ Hundreds of small people in the Middle belt were also advised to combine to have a region of their own, while the Hausa Fulani have a region of their own. That was what we asked for. We did not ask for any region to break up. We asked for a rational sustainable structure within the federation. But the British refused it for their own reason. The first thing that happened after independence is that the people who controlled the Federal Government now tried to establish the authority of the Federal Government over the regions by attacking the Western region. So, we had to defend our own region by whatever means we could politically. People went into the streets and made life difficult for everybody until the military took over.
And when the military took over, the disaster finally came. They turned Nigeria into an army commanded by a central commander. Successive military dictators did that for a long time. When they were finally going in 1998, they put together all the commands and centralization and called it a constitution. That is why there is no limit to the powers of the Federal Government. The president is a dictator in Nigeria. We surely cannot rule ourselves like that. It cannot happen, it is not happening. There is chaos everywhere.
Would you say that the language with which you advocate this laudable objective is civil enough as not to offend other nationalities? This is bearing in mind the fact that there is bitterness in the North that you demonise their people by calling them Mumu and all sorts of names.
How many Yoruba persons have ever called the Northerners Mumu? There is no single important Yoruba person alive who has never spoken about the need to restructure. Chief Afe Babalola who was the Chairman of the meeting we held in Ibadan recently has said it again and again, let’s restructure this country so that people can manage their own affairs. Did he demonise the North? Is Ayo Adebanjo demonisning the North? Is he not simply saying ‘we rule ourselves in a particular way before, let’s go back to it? Wole Soyinka has said Nigeria is in trouble; let’s organize ourselves in a way that will be acceptable to everybody. Has he ever said anything rude about the North? It is people who don’t want this thing to happen that are drumming up impossible reasons. Yoruba people are civil. We are civil in our language. Some of our young politicians who say crude things are not popular among us. Recently, Bola Tinubu made a very strong statement concerning restructuring. Was he rude to anybody?
Is it true that the late SL Akintola was the person who made a statement that led to Kano riot which was a prelude to the civil war?
It is not what Akintola said that sparked off the riot. There was the news that Ghana was going to be independent in 1957. Tony Enahoro, a young brilliant guy, wanted Nigeria to become independent before Ghana. And so he went to the House of Representatives and moved the resolution proposing that Nigeria should be given independence in 1956. Of course, the Northerners who had the fear of domination said they were not ready.
Ahmadu Bello himself said in his memoir that he wrote published in 1962 entitled: My Life. He said it very explicitly “that throughout 1950s, the greatest consideration in our meetings was fear of the more educated people of the South. How we will not become second rate citizen in this country called Nigeria.” It is that fear that sparked the Kano riot.
What precisely did Akintola say?
I can’t remember what he said because it is unimportant. Whoever is quoting what Chief Akintola as the statement that sparked off the Kano riot is petty nonsense. Let’s not dwell much on what Akintola said. The important thing is that the Northerners have good reasons to fear that they might be second rate citizens.
Up till now, we are still operating constitution given to us by the military. How do we wriggle out of the quagmire?
That is why we are asking for restructuring. It is the only way. We are living under government fashioned by the military. It won’t work.
There is a feeling of suspicion among the Igbo that Yoruba have the tendency to betray trust. And, of course, this may not be unconnected with their experience of the civil war especially the role of the Yoruba in keeping Nigeria one. On the other hand, there is an allegation from an opinion leader in the North that Yoruba told the Igbo to go but later made a U-turn. What exactly is the true position of Yoruba in this episode?
Where is the evidence that Yoruba told Igbo to go. Who can point to any statement that proves that? We heard that some people were advising military government to let the Igbo go because they said they were troublesome. We Yoruba didn’t agree that they were too troublesome. They are dynamic and ambitious people. When some senior civil servants of Yoruba origin were advising Gowon to let the Igbo go, we held a meeting of leaders of thought and we decided that if the Igbo are let go, then we must regard Nigeria as dissolved and ultimately Yoruba will have to take care of their own lives too. So, it was not an advice to the Igbo. Nobody ever advised Igbo to do anything. The first person to speak to the Igbo leader was Chief Awolowo. In May 1967, in Enugu, he led a reconciliation committee led by Sir Adetokunbo Ademola. They decided to send a peace team to the Igbo leader, Governor Ojukwu to appeal to him to allow peaceful settlement of the crisis. In that group were Chief Awolowo, Chief Mariere, Prof Sam Aluko, and one or two other people. They spent two days in Enugu.
The record of what they said in that meeting still exists. Ojukwu had ordered his officials to take every word at that meeting before the delegation arrived and every word of it was recorded. I have a copy of publication of the tape. There was no place where either Chief Awolowo or Chief Mariere advised the Igbo to secede. Their appeal to Ojukwu was to settle down. But Ojukwu insisted that the only place they would meet with the Northerners is on the battle field. So, the delegation left and came back.
About one week later, Ojukwu declared secession. At what point did Awolowo or any Yoruba advise Ojukwu to go on secession?
The truth of the matter is that Chief Awolowo never accepted that Nigeria should break up. Younger members of his group used to tease him about it and he didn’t want to hear it. If Awolowo were alive, he would never accept the break up of Nigeria because you dare not mention it in his presence. If anybody says he encouraged any section of the country to break up, it is a lie.
What then is your view about IPOB agitation for secession?
I don’t want Nigeria to break up. I cannot purge myself of the feeling that Nigeria can become a great country.