Dr. Uma Oke Eleazu was a member of the committee that drafted the 1999 constitution and in 2006 he also served in the committee set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to look into the constitution.
In 1993, he ventured into politics and aspired to be the president on the platform of Social Democratic Party (SDP). He spoke to VINCENT KALU and condemned the clamour for 2023 election among other issues.
What is your view on the state of the nation?
It looks as if we are in a vehicle that is going down hill, and the driver and the conductors are fighting so that they cannot even apply the breaks and they don’t even know that they are not just drifting down hill, but there is a precipice, which they are going to fall into. The state of the nation is very precarious.
For the first time, President Buhari mentioned true federalism as the way forward. This is a man who labelled those taking such position, as ‘selfish.’ Do you believe him?
I don’t know whether he means what he says, because he says so many things and they don’t happen. When you are at that point, people write speeches for you and then you read it. Maybe, somebody slotted in that phrase into his speech, and he read it. So, until something starts happening in this direction, I don’t think that he meant it.
There is this clamour for restructuring as the only way for Nigeria to progress, how can this be done?
There is so much confusion in terms of how to restructure and what is being restructured. The matter is very simple. We had four regions at independence, and each of those regions had its own constitution, and has internal self government, and managed its own affairs, and the country was growing, developing. Since 1966, they changed the constitution, and turned the federal system into a unitary one. Even though they still call it federal, it is no more federal, but it is unitary. Since 1966, more especially, after the civil war, we have been operating a unitary system with one commander at the top.
Restructuring simply means, we should go back to a situation, where each of the federating units controls its own affairs and would be in a position to make decisions and laws that would apply within its own area of authority. That is what people are asking, whether you call it fiscal or true federalism or restructuring, this is the basic issue.
When you have federalism, there will be need to decide on how to finance the central government because the central government is owned by all the federating units and have specific functions assigned to it.
If we go back to the Independence Constitution or the 1963 variation of it, you will find out that each region contributed a certain amount, which was agreed for the running of the central government. It is the regions, the federating units that contribute money to the central government; it is not the centre that collects everything that is supposed to be the revenue in the country, and then dishes out as much as it likes to the federating units, which is doing the thing upside down. That is what people call fiscal federalism, in other words, how do you finance the central government if the regions control and produce things on themselves. It is a matter of agreement and an agreement was reached at the time the constitution was being formed before 1956 and 1960.
Do you mean the present 36 states should be collapsed into the four regions we had or the six geo political zones as we have now?
The 36 states as we have now are more or less spending units; they don’t produce anything. They are just spending centres as the Federal Government collects everything and dishes out as much as it likes to the states. The 36 states constitute a very expensive way of running a government.
Imagine, in a state, there are one governor and probably 10 to 15 commissioners, about six or seven special advisers to the governor, and also special assistant to the commissioners. All of them are being paid from the amount of money that they receive from the centre. In the 36 states, we have 36 governors earning hefty amount of money, as well as their commissioners. In most instances, the commissioners do virtually nothing, and they are being paid, including other perquisites. They have SUVs as official vehicles, while the governors may have about three vehicles in his entourage. The overhead cost alone of just the governors and commissioners is such a large amount that the people who ought to be paid for the work they do, like teachers, doctors, nurses and other workers are not even paid.
The 36 states structure is the most expensive way of running a government. Do you know that at independence when we had 27 provinces in the entire county, each province had an officer called a resident, he is like a governor. Under the resident, you have the office divided into districts, which were run by district officers. Both the resident and the district officers were civil servants, and they didn’t have all these special assistants this and special adviser that.
Below the district officer, probably you have assistant district officer, and then chief clerk. In fact, there were only 237 white men residents and district officers between 1954 and 1960, but today, the same country is being run by 36 governors, over 420 commissioners, etc. Also, we have a National Assembly; the other day, I was doing arithmetic: A member of the NASS receives N13. 5 million a month; at the new N30, 000 minimum wage, it will take a labourer 37 years of work to earn just one moth salary of a member of NASS.
We also have 109 senators, and about 360 members of House of Representatives. All of them just earn money and produce practically nothing; they go and sit there, sometimes I watch on the television what they call debate. It is not worth what we used to call debates those days in secondary school. I read a post in the Whatsapp that there were legislators who have sat there for eight years without even sponsoring a bill; they just collect salary and go.
The federal structure we have set up is so expensive, and we spend all the money we should be using in development on overhead expenses, and that is why the country is simply not developing.
I know some people have tasted power like state governors, etc, each group now maintains a kind of personality, so you cannot go and tell Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Rivers and Bayelsa to emerge back into the former Eastern Region.
However, you can wipe out the states and fall back; we can maintain the boundaries of the states and still go back to the old Eastern Region, call them together and decide what type of arrangement they want to have or go back to the various provinces and decide the constitution that will hold them together and allow them to grow. It is not as simple as I’m saying it, but somebody has to start something somewhere.
Alternatively, if we give legal backing to the existing six geo-political zones, they should serve as the federating units.
Then it means, for example in the South East, those elected to the NASS will be sent back home to meet with their own people and hold conference to first, ask do we want to be part of Nigeria? If the answer is yes, then, the next question should be what kind of constitution should hold us together? The same should happen in the South West, South-South and in the North Central, North West and North East. After they are through with the exercise, we can then have a national convention, where we would sit and agree and disagree the kind of constitution we want.
Most likely, each region would like to be by themselves. The next question will be how much power do you want to cede to the central government, which is the Exclusive Legislative List. Every other matter will be residual to regions, except areas in which those regions and the Federal Government will agree. We had worked out all these during the constitutional conference of both that of 1998 and 2014. The basic documents are there, it is just that Buhari doesn’t want to touch it. If he is now ready, he should go and retrieve the 2014 report of the conference and let each region take it and decide on what they want to do. We are not dissolving the country, but let us give the so-called six geo-political zones a legal position in the constitution.
You have been involved in constitution making for the country right from 1979 and the one of 1998 we are using now, why did you and others put in what you are canvassing?
Have you ever seen the reports of any of the constitutional conferences; report on it, not the constitution enacted? You will not see it because this is a country where things are not done properly, if otherwise, you will have the basic documents of what people said; the papers that were submitted so that future generations will know the thinking that went behind each of the constitutions that we have. Every constitution has a private opinion behind it and what eventually emerges as the constitution depends on the people who hold power at the time it was enacted.
What was eventually enacted as 1979 constitution was doctored by the Supreme Military Council; they removed all that they didn’t like and put what they wanted to see and then enacted it.
The same thing happened in 1998. I was a member and I knew the final things that we agreed. What we have as 1999 constitution has nothing to do with the debates that were made during that time. The group was called the Constitution Debating Committee. In other words, the membership of that committee was supposed to debate a constitution, and the constitution we were expected to debate was the one that Abacha produced 1996 or thereabouts. There was also a constitutional conference under Abacha, and that was the first time geo-political zones were mentioned. That constitution was not enacted or decreed into being before Abacha died.
When they brought us together to what is now, the 1999 constitution, they gave us copies of the Abacha draft; that we should take it to the various states and regions to debate. I led the group that went to East and the Mid-west, and people produced papers stating what they wanted. For example, people from Rivers said they wanted to go back to parliamentary system and that the revenue allocation formulae should be abolished and want to go back to revenue allocation system established in 1963.
We brought all these and produced our report; people, who went to the North, said they too wanted to go back to the parliamentary system, stating that they don’t like this presidential system. I have the actual papers, which were presented. The Chairman of the committee, Prof Niki Tobi, (He was a professor of Islamic Law in the University of Maiduguri before he was made a justice), and one senior lecturer from the University of Sokoto, Yadudu, after we have collated what we have and left, they doctored the Abacha constitution and gave to Abdulsalami Abubakar, who made a decree and said, ‘we the people…’
I was one of the people that said, ‘sorry, we the people didn’t say what is in that constitution’. But the climate of opinion among the power elite at that time was let’s get something so that the military can handover power quickly and leave.
What they put in the constitution was what they had already decided they wanted to see. It went back to the extreme centralisation of power at the centre. They doctored it and made a loose statement that we all argued and disagreed over, which allowed people like Yerima now to declare their own state as Islamic State.
These things don’t really happen the way people see it; it is not like those called together and they agreed clause by clause that this is what we want to put in the constitution. It doesn’t happen that way, especially this 1999 constitution.
There is this frenzy for where power will reside in 2023, what is your opinion?
You started by asking me my view on the state of the nation; there may be no Nigeria by 2023. Because with what is happening before 2023, we may have ended in the precipice that we are drifting into. Those who are saying 2023, where will they do that; will there be Nigeria for them to do what they want to do.
People we don’t even know are overrunning Nigeria, and people who are in power say they are not Nigerians. If they were not Nigerians, what kind of immigration policy do we have that allows people who are not Nigerians to just migrate and just kill your citizens and you keep quiet and look the other way. Something is wrong. Those are the basic issues we have to sort out before talking of 2023
It is like living in a fool’s paradise when you start talking about 2023, when you have not solved the problem of 2019. The problem facing us now is survival, it is not just one state; look at what is going on in Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna, North East, even in Buhari’s village, where the traditional ruler was abducted.
Now from Lagos, you cannot be comfortable going to the East; you will just be sitting on the edge until you get to where you are going. What kind of country is that? Foreigners invade your country; you jetted out to Saudi Arabia to go and talk of terrorism.
He started the second term; he has been sworn in, there was no inaugural speech, a whole country and we don’t know where we are going. It is like you chartered a car and you have not told the driver where you are going, he just get into the car and starts driving. You tell him to stop, do you know where we are going and he is not listening, and he continues going. That is the kind of people we have at the head now. They say they have been reelected and he is inaugurated, he couldn’t say that now that I have taken oath of office, this is how I’m going to tackle the present crises in the country.