By Onyedika Agbedo
Chief Guy Ikokwu is a member of the Southern Leaders Forum, (SLF), which has insisted on the restructuring of the country even after the Devolution of Powers Bill recently failed in the National Assembly in the ongoing constitution amendment exercise. A civil war hero and chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Second Republic politician says in this interview that restructuring Nigeria’s system of governance will benefit all sections of the country. Ikokwu, who was a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) that fought for the restoration of democratic rule in the country, however, warns that delaying the process further could spell doom for the country. He also recalls few of his experiences fighting on the side of Biafra in the war and prays that the current situation of the country does not degenerate into another war. But he also warns: “Let those who are in the military today not try warfare because a military solution in Nigeria is not possible now.”
The recent rejection of the Devolution of Powers Bill by National Assembly has inflamed separatist agitations across the country. Even you people in the Southern Leaders Forum recently said it is either restructuring or break up. Why has it been so?
The problem we have now is one that envelops the whole nation, not just a section of the nation. It concerns the legislature, executive, judiciary, traditional rulers and Nigerians who are not part of these establishments. That is why the matter has remained on the front burner for almost two years now like no other issue in this nation. But it has gravitated to such a point now that it requires an immediate decision, which is why many people who have looked at the matter both at home and in the Diaspora say that Nigeria is sitting almost on a keg of gunpowder waiting to explode; and that we should not allow that gunpowder to explode because it will not benefit anyone.
Our children have now become more active on this issue. At first they were just making noise or exclaiming. But our cultural adage says that the hen that is shouting for the protection of her chicks is doing so for those outside to hear because it knows there is a kite up in the sky, which might dive down and kill one or more of its chicks. So, our children have been shouting very loud and clear for the elders and those outside the country to hear and know what is happening and not wait until there is an explosion before intervening. When there is an explosion, it will be difficult to counteract.
We, as elders have been trying to see how we can do things to move the nation forward, things that will be beneficial to our children’s children right across the length and breadth of this country. There are people who think that we are doing it for the interest of one part of the country; but I tell you no. We started by unifying the whole South because we feel that this area has been very much disadvantaged, particularly in the last 60 years, which everybody knows it’s true from every analysis. So, we are now a collective. Then we moved forward to look at the whole of Nigeria and found that the Middle Beltans are also marginalised to a lot of extent. We held a meeting with some of their leaders in Abuja about three weeks ago and were surprised at the turnout. And for those who do not know, Middle Belt controls 13 out of about 19 states in the North; so, it’s more than just the North-central.
I give you an example, Atiku Abubarkar is a Middle Beltan but his state, Adamawa, is not in the North-central zone. And he has come out vehemently in support of restructuring; he is in support of getting back to the fundamentals for the greatness of Nigeria. He has been the vice president of this country so he knows all the fundamentals.
But the South is clearly at the vanguard of the agitation for restructuring. Why are southern leaders not resting on their oars on the issue? What does the South stand to benefit more from the exercise?
It’s not a question of the South benefiting; if you are talking about the South benefiting we will be talking about the whole of the South breaking away from Nigeria and forming our own independent countries whether on a confederal basis or on a separate independent basis. But that is not the cause the South is pursuing now; it’s not the position. We think that Nigeria will move forward economically, developmentally, culturally and otherwise as a nation that is imbued with justice and fair play. We are talking of a situation where we elevate intelligence to suppress indolence and people who do not want to wear their thinking cap. Today, we are talking about digitalisation; if somebody will come and start talking of non-digitalisation now, you will know that the person is actually talking about retrogression.
So, what we are talking about is not just for the South; I tell you that any zone in the South will actually be in a position to move forward at a developmental pace of no less than six or seven per cent per annum if left to stand alone. Forget about whether it has oil or not and whether it has steel or not. I always give example with Singapore. Singapore just started in 1960 just like we started; they were kicked out of the Malaysian federation and they moved on. And their leader Lin Quan Yu said that he would infuse education, discipline and hard work into his people, and that was what he did. Today, Singapore is a success story.
So, any of the zones in Nigeria including North-eastern zone where you have Boko Haram can survive more equitably if they are given the wherewithal today. The North-east is the poorest zone under our present system, but if given the wherewithal, within three or four years, the zone alone will surpass any of the ECOWAS countries, apart from the southern states here in Nigeria. So, our people should understand that we are talking about the whole of Nigeria. When the whole of Nigeria comes together as a truly federal body, not as a unitary body that we have today, the country will rapidly move up the development ladder.
Look at the economic statistics that the Federal Government released the other day. They told us that we would develop this year at 2.5 per cent; next year at three per cent; 2019 at four per cent and in 2020 at seven per cent. Nobody buys that; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had said that this year, Nigeria would only grow at 0.8 per cent, not even one per cent. We know all this; we have to tell ourselves the utmost truth. The 2016 budget failed and 2017 budget is already a failure on arrival. So, what are we talking about? Can you tell a young boy that you have trained that one plus one is 11 instead of two? And you want the boy to believe it? Come on! This is what is going on in this country now.
If you say that restructuring is for the benefit of the whole country, why is the North not favourably disposed to it in your view?
I like your question but it’s not the whole North. The North is made up of 19 states under our present constitutional configuration. But it consists of three zones. I can tell you that today, majority of the northern states are in favour of restructuring the country. We held a meeting with the Middle Belt leaders and they said they were in favour of restructuring the system under which Nigeria is being governed now. In the far North, at least 50 per cent of the population are in favour of restructuring.
The problem we have now is how to get a wholesome and well-coordinated acceptance and implementation of the project. There are many people in Nigeria who believe that restructuring should happen but some parts of the many also say, ‘not now, it should be tomorrow’. People holding legislative offices will tell you, ‘we agree with you but wait until we finish our tenure’; likewise some governors. But we keep telling them that restructuring will not disturb their tenure and so we should start the process now. It may take us one year to complete the implementation but you don’t have to wait for two years before you start implementing what will take you another two or three years to complete.
Take our national legislators for instance. They are the most highly paid legislative organ in the world. Our senators today earn more money than the American senators. And yet when you look at the demographics, do we produce more than the Americans? We are a consuming nation and not a productive nation. We consume 86 per cent of everything Nigeria has on recurrent expenditure —allowances, salaries and what have you. Do we have enough money to pay even salaries when many states owe their workers? Did this happen when Ahmadu Bello, Zik, Okpara, Awolowo and Osadebe were in government? There would have been rebellion then if anything like that reared its head.
But the culture in Nigeria today is one of lootocracy and embezzlement; the culture today is one that has given us the highest rate of criminality that Nigeria has known for more than 60 years. Check the media; the rate of criminality you will find is such that people are afraid of what happens even in their own homes and offices.
And you believe restructuring is the solution?
Through restructuring, we shall whittle down the cost of governance. More money will now go into development than consumption. The country will be better oriented for production than consumption. Today, we are only consuming and consuming and the consumption is not enough to go round and will not even go round; it cannot go round even in the coming years if we don’t restructure. But when we start to produce, we shall now be adding more. We have the intellect to produce; we have the people. If, for instance, the northern zones as separate autonomous states within Nigeria invest 20 per cent of the resources they have now or will have under a new system on education, you will find that some of those undernourished and uneducated children of theirs, which some people call almajiris, have an intellect that can take a rocket to the moon.
So, what we are saying is that Nigeria should have a system that should move it forward as the most populated country of the Black man on earth; and make the whole Black people in the world proud. We have the intellect; we have the people to achieve that but they don’t have the opportunity, so most of them leave the country. And it’s all because of the system. It’s an irrefutable fact and anybody who refuses it is a dunce and an unproductive idiot; we can’t say it otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether the person is Igbo, Tiv, Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaw, Igala, Efik or whatever.
If all these benefits you have enumerated are embedded in restructuring, why is it not having a smooth sail across the country?
It is selling; let an independent body from the African Union (AU) assisted by the United Nations (UN) come and conduct a referendum in Nigeria today and you will find that no less than 85 per cent of Nigerians are in favour of changing the system of governance. Restructuring is change of system; that is what we are talking about. You will ask me how am I sure majority of Nigerians are in support of it? I am sure because up to 1963 when we had the Republican Constitution, Nigerian regions grew at an average of six per cent annually. There were some that grew at seven per cent annually. But when the military changed us from a federal republic to a unitary republic, without actually calling it what it is, everything started crumbling. But why did the military tell a lie to its own people? It’s because the people did not elect them. They were not representatives of the aspirations of the people, so they were telling those lies for themselves. That is why the biggest billionaires in Nigeria today are those from the military extraction or those who attach themselves to it. And they are not accountable. You see, if you make a million naira and you are accountable, of course there will be justice.
I give you a very good example, which everybody would understand. One footballer now moved from Barcelona to PSG and his name is Neymar. Neymar’s transfer fee was about a quarter of a billion dollars, which is the highest transfer fee for any footballer in this world as at today. But under the French system, you have to pay 75 per cent tax, so the bulk of that payment to Neymar went to the French government as taxation. How many Nigerians are paying the correct tax today? How many of our billionaires who fly in private jets are paying the correct tax to the Nigerian government? But you know that most of these monies were looted from the government. And they know it; the government knows it; but the government is a part and parcel of the lootocracy.
There are a lot of Nigerians today who believe that government’s money is their personal money. And you get them in all strata of governance whether executive, legislature or judiciary. They pay government’s revenue into their personal accounts and see it as their entitlements. If they can’t pay into their accounts because of the Bank Verification Number (BVN) that Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) introduced, they will go and dig a hole at the back of their defective buildings in the village and bury it there; or they will take it to one of the high rise buildings in Lagos and rent a flat there with millions of dollars and store it there. And the government is unable to tell us the real truth. You and I still do not know the real owner of the $43 million found in a flat in Osborne Towers in Ikoyi, Lagos. All that the government has said is ‘pay it into the CBN’.
And the problem has to do with the system?
Yes, of course! This system does not give room for accountability. It does not give room for transparency; a lot is hidden from the people. That is why Nigerians are rooting for restructuring. And I repeat that if an independent body, not our own INEC, should conduct a referendum on the issue today, you will see that Nigerians will overwhelmingly support it.
Like the Sultan of Sokoto said, and we treasure that he was able to say that publicly, the problem of Nigeria today is that the country is in a rot. And we have to clean it up. Cardinal Okogie said recently that if we don’t change the system under which this country is governed, the exploitative tendencies will ruin this country; and we will not go anywhere and this nation will crash. It was not the first time he said that this nation would crash if we don’t do the right thing. So, is it that we don’t know the right things to do? Of course, a lot of Nigerians know the right things to do and how it should be done.
So, you believe that the country will crash if not restructured?
If Nigeria is not restructured by the end of this year, the country will crash. Nigeria will be dismembered; our militant youths will excel. But the militant youths are our children and we tell them, ‘please this is a red line, don’t cross; we know what you are shouting’. We do not want to go into another civil war. That’s why we urge our youths to be peaceful now. Even Ojukwu said that you can’t go into two civil wars in a country and survive.
I was in the Biafran war as a young lawyer. I was younger than the militants of today; I was 30 years old when I came back from London but I slept in the bush for three years. It was a horrible situation; I would have died three times when Nigerian jets manned by Egyptians and Russians, not even Nigerians, came strafing and shooting at us in the township in Umuahia and in the bush. I’m just lucky as an individual to be alive today. Many of our engineers died; they died because they sacrificed their lives to save the market women and children. It was a period of torture and I can’t say that I don’t know it. And I can’t tell my children to go and fight and be massacred. But we must exercise a restraining syndrome and influence on those who think they can go it alone.
And let me say it today loud and clear to everyone. The Nigerian military today is not as composed as it was before the civil war in 1966. It is not; absolutely not! Then, the Nigerian Army had Yorubas on their side; it also had the Ijaws, some Efiks and a majority of the Tivs on their side. And the few of us who remained in what was then Biafra had to use our ingenuity to resist. And we were able to hold out for three years. But we were eventually crushed because of military and economic blockade.
Do you really think the Nigerian military is now disadvantaged to subdue any such wars?
The military is not as composed as it was then. Let those who are in the military today not try warfare. I repeat it again, let them not try warfare. When they started going into the South-south, the American embassy in Nigeria and even the Pope told them that a military solution in Nigeria is not possible. And it is still not possible today. It is absolutely not possible today to subjugate the rising population in the South-west, South-east, South-south and the Middle Belt. It is not possible; it is very clear. But what they are trying to do is to provoke our young ones who are militantly advocating for restructuring to take up arms whereas these boys believe in civil disobedience.
If you have ruled out military solution, what are the alternatives, since restructuring has not actually got the backing of all sections of the country and things are steadily falling apart?
Peaceful solution is possible. I’m glad you got to this point. People are hearing; the northern elements are hearing. The governors in the North are not as simple minded as people thought they were. They are now quite highly educated and some of them have weighed the options. Majority of the northern leadership now believe that it is better to have a peaceful restructuring of the country, which they didn’t believe before. There are a few of them that you read always in the newspapers who are quite vociferous but some of their discerning leaders have called them to order. They were the ones who encouraged some of their own boys, Yerima Shettima and co, to give quit notice to Igbos.
Shettima was part of us in NADECO here in Lagos. Many people don’t know that. He had no steady job then but he was quite useful; he was ready to talk about democracy against military rule. We encouraged him; he knows me very well. But some people are deceiving him to use his youthful exuberance to do what is not needful. They are giving quit notice to who? Igbos cannot quit Nigeria because Igbos are part of Nigeria. We didn’t come from any part of the world; we are not tenants in Nigeria. Yorubas are not tenants in Nigeria; the Binis, Idomas, Tivs, etc are all part of Nigeria. You can’t say that they are from here or there; or that they migrated this year or that year. But we know those who migrated into Nigeria. So, the quit notice was not an actuality; it was an aberration, which should not have been done because it cannot be handled. And their elders are now seeing that what we are telling them is real.
The Northern Governors Forum had a two-day meeting with the traditional rulers recently. The chairman of the forum, Governor Shettima of Borno State said some candid truths that are beneficial for the country, even though he also had to speak for his people. There is no question about that, but that has paved the way for negotiations. And this was after the National Assembly didn’t do the needful. They have formed a committee now chaired by the Governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal to look into the issues and write their position paper in a way that will benefit the whole country (and also favour the North). So, they are at it.
We in the South have agreed also that we are taking them on it. We have asked the governors of the South to immediately convoke a conference of all the governors of the South together with some selected traditional rulers, clerics and some eminent personalities this August, to find a peaceful way to resolve the current impasse in the country. That will lead to a meeting of the South and the North. That is what we are hoping for now; if possible even before the National Assembly resumes, because there is no trust now on the National Assembly. Some of them are just protecting their own interests and benefits.
If the two meet bilaterally with some sensible formulations, it is possible to resolve the issues and give our children and children’s children a better system in which to grow up, which will be productive, developmental and which will put the Black up as Nigeria will become the shining light for the Black man. Today, Nigeria is not the shining light for the Black man. In the ECOWAS sub-region, they now call Nigeria big for nothing. Who wants to answer such a name? It’s an insult. No Nigerian will be happy with that. You go to anywhere in the world and when you present your passport to the immigration people, they will look at it and say, ‘Nigeria, over there please’. Why? They want to search you because they don’t think you are going to add value to their country, instead they think you are going to take away what they have, either to steal or to convert. So, the system is not beneficial and I don’t want to train my children in such a situation. Nor do you or anybody.
But why are you just realising this now. Some of you who are championing this cause have been there all these years but did nothing to change the system. That’s what bothers many Nigerians and even a top official of the Federal Government was alleged to have recently described advocates of restructuring as political jobbers but the Presidency denied it?
So, why did the Federal Government deny it? Why would people at the presidential level say things that are not justifiable? You see, that is the problem we have in this country. We don’t face reality.
So, why is this agitation coming from people who have been part of the system for years and did nothing?
Why some people are realising it now (I didn’t use the word we) is because it is no longer beneficial. It is not longer productive. Some people are realising it now because the personal income of those so-called billionaires have diminished. Even those who are at the middle also have diminished income; they are no longer productive. Their businesses have crumbled. How many of such Nigerians pay taxation today across the board?
Criminality now is more than it was 30 years ago. Can you imagine 30 years ago where a woman would finish cooking the food she would sell in the market and go inside her house to dress up and some people would come and steal the pot of stew with meat and fish? Can you imagine 30 years ago where a husband and wife would sell their newborn baby for N150, 000? That was even too much money. Last week, the papers reported that some parents sold their own baby for a bag of rice. Did it happen 30 or 20 years ago? Can you tell me that 20 years ago, 30 states in Nigeria cannot pay the minimum wage of N18,000 to their workers? Some of the states owe their workers between six to eight months salary arrears. And yet, the governors get security votes, which are not audited, and blow the whole thing up. Now, the Federal Government has to give them palliatives to be able to pay workers. In economics, we call it feeding bottle economic system. Where is that federation in the whole world that the component parts have to go to the capital city every month to get bailouts and palliatives?
We have reached what we call a state of diminished return, which has absolutely no value. The system is no longer workable. May be 10 years ago it looked like it would be workable particularly when the price of oil was high. But look at how much oil money we have wasted over these years. Economists now tell us that over these years, Nigeria was able to garner about $500 billion of oil money. Where is it? If they had been used productively, Nigeria would have surpassed Dubai today. Dubai is also feeding on oil but see how they use their oil revenue for productive sources. The whole of Europe goes to Dubai to establish something new. The medical world now troops to Dubai for medical tourism. But in Nigeria, a situation has arisen where even the Nigerian President cannot go to any hospital in Nigeria to treat ear infection. We had to see it to believe it; at first it was unbelievable.
You see, time allows us to be able to synthesise these things. Can you imagine that 60 years ago, Malaysia had to come to the Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan to learn how to use palm nuts to get palm oil? They went back to Malaysia to plant palm trees. Today, Malaysia produces more palm oil than the whole of Africa and they have now converted palm oil into energy that you can use to drive your car. Meanwhile, in Nigeria today we are importing palm oil from Malaysia and when it is not enough we adulterate it; we bleach it to look even redder than the unadulterated one. Many of us are eating poison and drinking poison, but it takes time to articulate for people to see these things.
There are a whole lot of things; you can write 10 books on these issues. We are now at the end game; every Nigerian should understand this. I say it to members of my family and other people say it too. Nobody is benefiting; Nigeria is virtually bankrupt. It’s a situation that makes one cry and no real Nigerian can go out and boast that we are a great nation, that we are a good nation or that we are moving forward. Of course, we are not moving forward; we are moving backward. And our native culture says that if you are on a road and you do not know where you are going, turn back. The truth is that Nigeria has been going to a destination that is not certain and clear, which is leading into the precipice. And the only thing that can be done rationally now is to brake and reverse and find the true road to where we are going.