By Daniel Kanu
Human rights activist, legal giant, and former President of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) is worried on how Nigeria is drifting by the day.
He,therefore, warned that unless very urgent actions are taken, Nigerians may not have a country to call their own again.
In his bold and courageous manner, he blamed this on leadership failure while pointing out the way forward.
He spoke with Sunday Sun in an exclusive interview. Excerpt:
Most analysts have come up with a damning conclusion that Nigeria is now a failed state. What is the true position given your legal background?
Well, I can only refer to the index that is published on an annual basis by the Freedom House and it is entitled: “The Index of fragile states” and out of about 200 countries, Nigeria is about 14, so that is the status of the nature of Nigeria’s ranking by hopefully, independent neutrals who use certain criteria to determine how fragile a state is or can be. That is where Nigeria ranks. Across, we see in Nigeria a lot of tension around the question of insecurity across the country. In the Northeast you have Boko Haram, in the Northwest is the question of kidnappings and banditry, in the Southwest, not much of insecurity, but a stir in large scale of unemployment, something like about 70 million Nigerians are technically unemployed or unemployable, so that is a vulnerable and willing mass of people that can be deployed for misbehaviour, in the Southeast, there is a question of IPOB and the sovereignty issues around Biafra, in the North-central there is the herdsmen and the farmers’ issue, in the South-south, the issue of environmental degradation has been replaced by the world’s most dangerous seas. Nigeria is now number 1 as the most dangerous area of piracy, as rated by the International Maritime Bureau. So this is already a cocktail of insecurity and it is something that I think that the government needs to tackle very seriously and whether they are doing that effectively has been the subject of public debate. I think the governors of the South who had a meeting recently have shown how serious the issues are if they are calling for state police so that they can better control their security apparatus. On the whole, one will say that Nigeria is very heavily challenged.
Nigeria seems to be at a tipping point. Where do you locate the mistakes that brought us to this sour situation?
Leadership, yes, leadership is the main problem and Chinua Achebe has said that in his book “The trouble with Nigeria”. Leadership is the reason we have been in trouble. This is because leadership means recognizing and diagnosing issues and resolving them promptly. If you allow matters to fester, for instance, the nature of Nigeria’s federal structure has festered for not less than 20 years and each government creates a National Conference without resolving the problem. And so it is carried from Obasanjo to Yar’Adua to Jonathan and it’s still unresolved, so it means we have been living in a process that has not been stabilized and when that process is not stabilized the likelihood of releasing our fullest potential will be affected.
Do you think that with restructuring but still with bad leadership controlling the clutches of power that we can still get it right?
No, no, no, not at all, we wouldn’t. I have always said to the annoyance of those who feel that I should be a core restructurist that restructuring alone is not enough. There is a lot more than restructuring and they ask me: “What more?” There is the leadership, there is the maturity and sagacity of the political parties, there is the honest intents of even Nigerians, the followers, etc, there are a lot that you put on the table to release the sort of energy that will make Nigeria turn around, but if the thinking is that merely to restructure, it will resolve the problems, that is a big, huge joke, it wouldn’t. if you look at the governors who are calling for restructuring, generally in the states the level of bad governance is very high because they stifle the local governments, and when they stifle the local governments, the base of Nigeria where people live they create problems there too. I don’t live in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I live in Lagos State, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is just an expression. I can’t say I live in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but I can say, I live in Lagos State and I live in Eti-Osa Local Government, so it is Eti-Osa Local Government that influences the quality of my life. So, if local governments are stifled around Nigeria and they cannot deliver services, then there is a big problem. So, restructuring has nothing to do with providing autonomy for local governments to deliver basic services on refuse collection, education, inspection of hospitals to make sure people are not dying there, water supply, roads, etc, these are the little things expected from the local governments. So, if already governors are not able to allow freedom of say, the judiciary and the parliaments in their states, why will restructure suddenly be a magic wand to change things? So, that is not correct. Leadership, I think is crucial in how Nigeria can go forward.
If you look at your political zone, the Southeast area seems to be boiling. Can you hazard out what exactly is building up?
The perception of exclusion and marginalisation is fuelling the impetus for political instability. In any process where the family excludes one brother, he is not invited to the table to take part in the meal then he will go away feeling unwanted and the tendency to misbehave is high, so there is a strong feeling that the Southeast has not been at the centre and has not taken part in the collaborative process of what’s going on in Nigeria, in particular, the question of Igbo presidency or not. Such neglect or exclusion fuels people who feel that the time has come to be out of Nigeria, that they want to be Biafrans. But the tension between those who want to remain in Nigeria like me and those who want to leave creates the necessary frictions that you see and recall I told you that the high level of unemployment means that it is very easy to mobilise a troop of people willing to cause grievous harm, so that’s the reason the Southeast is boiling – the perception of the people that they are excluded in the scheme of things.
You just mentioned the issue of presidency of Igbo extraction. Do you think it’s feasible in 2023?
I am not a prophet so I cannot tell whether it will be feasible, but I think the more important question beyond whether a president of Igbo extraction is a possibility is the need for political stability because if you don’t have a country then talking about a president from any part of the zones is meaningless. So, I think the more important question now will be: “How we can pull back and ensure that there is political stability across the six zones that are now engaged in serious insecurity and conflict so that we can have a peaceful transition from President Buhari to whatever president that will take over in 2023”, but if it is not possible then where a president comes from becomes irrelevant. So, I think the more important question between now (2021) and the next one year (2022) will be the real need to resolve all the communal tensions that we are looking at. There is a need to engage very seriously, all the conflict flashpoints, some of them, of course, involve the issue of restructure, we need to identify the problems and resolve them because where problems are unresolved you can’t carry out political or economic activity. So, I will hope that the call by the governors of the South should be a rallying point for beginning to resolve the clear insecurity situation that we are faced, it’s very vital, we have less than 12 months to do that, that is the timeline.
Do you see this government having the capacity to undertake what you are recommending?
I am not sure it is about President Buhari or this government, it is about the collective responsibility of leadership around PDP, APC, in particular, because these are the parties that are struggling for power and in the struggle for power they must put Nigeria first. If both parties agree to resolve all these issues we see around us, 80 per cent of the problem is resolved because President Buhari is part of a political party, so I don’t separate the party from the government process. All the 36 governors have a role, that is why I identify the role that governors can play in resolving the crisis, it’s very important. It is not just one government, it is the 36 governments and the federal government, and the political parties put together. In addition to this will also be the role of traditional institutions, religious institutions, etc, they have a role; they can’t stand back because when things go bad it consumes everybody. The traditional and religious institutions must be involved, between the traditional institutions and religious institutions, largely have more membership than the parties combined and they have a lot of influence, so they must have a voice, everybody must be part of this national peace process where we will address the conflict flashpoints in an honest and genuine way. So whatever the grievance that we have, we put it on the table and see how it can be resolved and they are so many of them as I said earlier, restructuring, of course, is one of them, good leadership is another one, governance, economic development, the question of poverty, unemployment, etc, they are many issues. There is a whole cocktail of issues that are bogging Nigeria down and then what you see blow out is the Boko Haram, IPOB, Sea piracy, kidnappings, banditry etc, these are the side effects of the huge problem. So, all this insecurity is the effect of a failure of leadership. If the leaders, both state leaders and non-state leaders agree to work together, that is where the intention must be channeled, if they agree that there is a problem here then the problem can be resolved. But if everyone stays in his own ethnic or religious corner there will be no resolution.
You are also talking about coming together like a conference to deliberate on the issues, but Nigeria has had a lot of conferences, including that of 2014 National Confab during President Jonathan adjudged to be comprehensive and on consensus in submissions. How optimistic that another conference will be taken seriously?
Again, I am not a prophet, I don’t know, but it is like a medical doctor looking at a patient and saying, here is what you need to do because these are the things I find wrong in you, whether you now follow my prescription is up to you, so the problem with Nigeria is that there has been a lot of talking, we know what the problems are, but the energy to resolve them has been the problem and, therefore, I don’t say, it’s the president, the onus is on everybody because religious and traditional institutions are part of Nigeria, they are also part of the elite, so they cannot abdicate their role, we need to hear them speak up more strongly, they are not doing that. Even the business community we need to hear all of them speak up louder because it is when they speak up that the governors who are the head of political leadership listen and say oh there is a problem, but if they are silent and nobody is talking then there isn’t that realization that things are very bad. I want to hear our traditional rulers, our religious leaders speak to the problems more forcefully and more urgently, it’s very important. They must speak truth to power.
You and some members of your group like Femi Falana (SAN) are coming up with a new movement. What new things are you people bringing on board as to give hope to Nigerians?
It’s almost these things that I have just been describing; how we can mobilise the political elite into a consensus of saying, here is what the problems are and these are the solutions that we feel that we can offer. So, part of what we are doing is to assist to identify some of the constitutional constraints in the 1999 Constitution and then to suggest how if those constraints are removed it might make the process more settled. For instance, the question of state police, if we have only one central police force there is no way the IG of Police can superintend Nigeria, it has shown to be impossible, which was why you now have regional security networks. So, it will make more sense if governors of states have the power to administer the security situation in their states. I think it will promote peace and good order. So, those are some of the things that we are calling for. We also talk about the need to resolve the large unemployment problem because if you have unemployed people you have angry people and you have people who can easily get into misbehaviour. It is a problem that Nigerian state needs to tackle. These are the sort of things that we put on the table for consideration by those who can take the actual decisions because we feel it is best to say these things than keep quiet. That potentially is the role we are playing.
How will you rate President Buhari leadership so far having been there for six years?
The challenge is that the Nigerian federation is crippled with inconsistency and it is those inconsistencies that trap the ability of the government to deliver. So, I am not so keen to say, how do I rate the government as in asking the question of what can be done to improve governance. The problems of ethnicity, the problems of religion are so dividing us that the outcomes we see are not unexpected because we have refused to place the issue of governance and the constraints before us and tackle them. It is like if you have bad roads and you drive the bad road in your car and the car is damaged. You do not blame the car, but you should talk about the bad roads, so the Nigerian situation is so terribly crippled that the possibility of any good outcome is so difficult. Electricity is not there, water is not there, there are no jobs, there are no roads, etc. The question is why are these things playing out? It is playing out because we cannot look towards a national identity, everybody is in an ethnic enclave and that has impeded the ability of any leader to responsibly deliver the dividends of democracy. So, if we keep asking the wrong question, what is the scoring of government? I will rather ask the other question; let us fix our problems. Do you know how many years this has been going on? Bola Ige asked a question and I sent it on the platform. There is nothing wrong in calling your wife in a meeting to say: “This union of ours is not working, so let us separate.” Those are the hard questions we need to ask. Bola Ige said there are two questions. First, do we want to be in one Nigeria? If yes, how? If no, how do we amicably split? That is the central question, if we don’t answer it we can never have good governance. That is what has pinned us down. What we have in Nigeria today is certainly not working because there is no common national objective. If we are 11 football players on the pitch with different strategies to play the game, they will lose, so we need to forge a common identity, so rather than pretend, we need to ask ourselves do we really want to be in one country? That is the central question if we answer yes, then the second question will be: In what form? So, that different parts of the country will put their grievances on the table and issues are amicably resolved.