– Paul Unongo, ex-minister, Deputy Chairman, Northern Elders Forum
■ Says, President not a magiciant
Paul Wantaren Unongo, former minister of steel development, a psychologist trained in experimental psychopathology and Deputy Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF who campaigned for a Nigerian President of northern extraction talks to Sunday Sun’s KENNY ASHAKA on the Buhari presidency, the need for a Sovereign National Conference, Nigeria’s future and other issues.
Perhaps we should start this interview by asking those of you who campaigned for a Nigerian president of Northern extraction your thoughts about the Buhari presidency more than one year after. Are there things you expected Buhari to do that he has not done?
There are many things that I expect Buhari to do that he has not done. They are many, and I am prepared to give him a chance. I have said we are watching Buhari’s style of government. Within the Northern Elders Forum, there are people who are so angry and they are angrier than you and they threatened to walk out and start campaigning for a new person against Buhari. And there are those who are saying yes, he has done certain things wrong and others right and he is too slow in this and that. And there are also those who are saying let’s watch him with commentaries that he should be judged on the basis of the gigantic job that was given to him at the beginning. I think it is legitimate. If his area of concentration after one year has yielded any achievement, let him report and tell us what he proposes to do in the next set of years. He hasn’t done half of his tenure and yet some Nigerians say he should have sorted all the problems that he inherited. That is the area where I disagree. And I don’t care whether anybody says, I am from the North. I have already told everybody that I am from the North. But if I campaigned for a president from the North, I had solid dreams that were factual, statistical and I gave them to the Nigerian press, in agriculture, in allocations of federal funds and so on. The most critical area of the Nigerian economy should be agriculture and we have the land.
Would you agree we are going through the worst economic downturn since 1999?
I don’t know. I know that PDP ran my state. I brought the government in my state into power. I know my discussions with Jonathan as my president. I told him that in my state which looks so forlorn, things are so bad that, sir, if you don’t care for us to discuss and take corrective measures, it would be run to the ground. You are going to run our ship aground. I went and talked to Jonathan at the national level. I said, my God, you cannot allow what is happening to continue. They said I am a theoretical person. I said yes, you need theoretical and clear thinkers. I am saying we are not leading well and I don’t want anybody to give me money, but what we are doing with money and the funds of Nigeria, we are going to run Nigeria to the ground and slow it down. Then, seven days to the election, Jonathan called me and I repeated this to him. I said Jonathan, you are going to lose the election; and I gave him advice…
(Cuts in) Do you agree we are going through the worst economic downturn since 1999?
You cannot force me to answer that question and go and quote me wrongly. I said we are suffering from the consequences of the ills of over speeding and the people who did the over speeding, and handed over empty treasury to the new government were in my government. I can prove it in a court of law. We didn’t do well. And anybody who knows economics could have predicted that the trend would continue in a different government because there is no magic wand to turn it around. President Barrack Obama came to power at the worst time in the history of the United States of America. That trend continued for sometime and he turned it around. It is historical. The achievements of this black man as president of US are historical. He turned the economy around in eight years that America is now back again as a super power, and in the area of economic productivity and creation of jobs, and the rest. We can do it, instead of concentrating on blaming people. Should I call Jonathan and say, Jonathan, you messed up the economy when I have power? If I were the one that has power, I know how I would have organized it. The people who have power, the vice president is talking daily and saying give us time, we will turn this economy around. I say one year is too harsh to criticize those running a battered economy that was already knocked down. It was going to crash if Jonathan were still there. The question is: is APC poised to turn things around like Obama did? And when we watch them and see that they are messing up, I will be the first to say these guys are messing up, we will never get out of this recession. But we brought Nigeria to this recession with over speeding. We have never seen this type of over speeding that took place on a governmental basis in the history of Nigeria. That is why some of us got angry and said let us organize and get rid of the Jonathan government. For God sake, bring somebody who is better. We are watching them. So far, they have attempted to do certain things. All they need to do is buckle up.
Would you then agree with politicians who are saying what is happening to the PDP is well deserved?
The PDP is playing the classic African politics. Africans don’t believe in opposition. And opposition based on ideological orientation is the best thing for the evolution of a sustained and sustaining system. But since we are all concerned with chop-chop politics it is assumed that when you are not in what they call government, you are going to suffer. So, how do you do it? You are used to saying $1billion here, take and dash that person. Now, you can’t do it. So, what you do is chop yourselves. I think there are good people in PDP and if they are given the chance, they can reform PDP, not the type of people I call Any Type of Government, the Jerry Ganas of this world. When it was military, Jerry Gana is there. Whatever military or civilian that comes, Jerry Gana was there. When they say they are repairing something and you put Jerry Gana there, I just laugh. It cannot resonate with me because I cannot follow somebody like Jerry Gana. People we know are whatever government goes, we shouldn’t follow them. And an opposition should even be critical. We should be critical of what we did before. And when this type of person starts flaunting himself as one of the leaders of the PDP, they will kill the PDP. But I won’t be there. Why the same people that found nothing wrong with Obasanjo, Buhari as military heads of state. They were even friends of Babangida. These are the people who almost wrecked this country. The military gave us so much trouble. And these people who are military apologists suddenly became democrats and today, when there is crisis in the PDP, everybody is saying let’s put Jerry Gana. You are jokers. Whatever is happening to PDP now, we deserve it. What we need now is to reflect and take a decision on whether to abandon PDP or create an ideological party, slightly left of the centre or right of the centre. I wrote the motto of the PDP. I know what was on my mind. I registered what I called PDP. And when these big people who came to look for money went and did what they did, I left. This is historical. I just laugh. You just brought all manner of people that are powerful who are looking for power and money to come and form a political party. Now, they are running it aground. And now that they are trying to give it life, they should allow people with ideas to create…we have been in power for a long time. We say we are the biggest party in Africa. I keep on telling them you are not. You are a pack of cards. There is nothing holding you except sharing of money. And you don’t share it with some of us because we say the truth and you don’t like us. Where did it end? Exactly where we told them it would end. The fights they are having now are classical. I predicted the same way I could have predicted in my homeland. But anybody thinking that they are going to sort out the problem in the party with people like Jerry Gana is a joker. In Nigeria, it is people like Jerry Gana that are good people. Ah! This is a wonderful man. He comes from the North. Rubbish!
But the APC is also going through a similar problem with quiet wrangling within, especially as it is getting overcrowded with defectors here and there. Don’t you think this will not work well for the party?
I agree with you. You see, the tragedy of Nigeria is that those people, most of them…Nigeria has great people from every part of the country, but they don’t have money. And the idea is that politics means money. You get power and when you have power, you consolidate by killing people and stealing. See where we are now. So, good people have decided to distance themselves from politics, whereas in other countries, politicians are highly regarded. Here in Nigeria, can you really regard politicians highly? A person who knows that a woman delivered a child, she couldn’t get drugs to sustain herself and the child dies of malnutrition, has no conscience. He corners a job called minister, a director or permanent secretary and this guy has no conscience to keep $2 billion in his account. He is happy. Anything that happens, he runs out of the country and the wicked countries of this world will not catch these people. Which industries did they establish that will give them this kind of money? Of course, these monies are sustaining the economies of these countries where they are kept. So, they protect them and they feed fat on the blood and carcasses of the Nigerian people. That is our problem. How do we get rid of this? Let us have a Sovereign National Conference to discuss this.
In that case, let’s talk about the issues of restructuring and whether the sovereignty of Nigeria can be negotiated as being propagated by some Nigerians?
Well, you have to define what you mean by restructuring. When they talk now, what do they mean by restructuring?
They are talking of the need to go back to the six regional structure that we had before now. It also flows from recommendations of the last National Conference that any state that wants to join with others is free to do so, provided some criteria are met.
First of all, let me explain my thoughts on the National Conference. My position is very clear on the National Conference that it has no legitimacy. Why did it not have legitimacy? It was an exercise of impunity with Mr. President, his political party and associates, choosing their friends at will, not representing the will of the people and pretending that they represented the will of the people. Then they assigned whatever it was that they wanted them to discuss. They limited them to within the things they wanted them to discuss. I think Nigeria has grown beyond that. And what I subscribe to is that there should be a Sovereign National Conference where the nationalities of Nigeria should be allowed to examine their togetherness after 100 years, then restructure in terms of how they will want their government to be organised, what powers they will give to the constituent parts that will make up the federation of Nigeria, how many they should be in view of our practice with the former three regions to the 19 states, then to the present 36 states. Nigerians are capable of doing that sort of exercise, and once Nigerians do that exercise, if the government does not believe in the exercise of choice through a well -defined arrangement where all Nigerians will be represented, then they should ensure that every single nationality in Nigeria should be represented by whatever means they find out. Then, they should now convoke or convert this to another body if they don’t want to call it Sovereign National Conference. They should now present the decisions of such a conference of the democratically chosen personalities on the basis of the nationalities of the Nigerian nation state. On the basis of that, the decisions that will come out from the free choice of these Nigerians, if we want a great nation that should be respected. That decision should not be subjected to parliament. It should be sovereign. They should now evolve the constitution and become the Constituent Assembly and ratify the new constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They may come up with 36 states if they feel that the experience we have now is useful. They can go back to the three regions we had, if they feel that is good or they can come up with seven, eight, nine viable, democratically chosen organizational structures that will now be made to appear as if they are the ones that are the constituents that have agreed to come together to form the Nigerian nation state. Now, the nomenclature is important.
They can now make all these people premiers of their various states or regions if they want to use the word Prime Minister, or they can make them governors or leaders or whatever. But an arbitrary arrangement among friends which President Jonathan convoked is not the decision of the people of the sovereign Nigerian republic, no matter how good they are until the decisions are presented to the new constitution convoked on the basis of all the nationalities in Nigeria. Let them discuss them among other new suggestions that would come. In that case, we would evolve a constitution that is given to us freely by the people of Nigeria exercising sovereignty over themselves and their land. That process would have taken complete notion of this corrupt Nigerian constitution that has been adopted. They either seize power through the gun or through the corrupt money they have acquired from the state and exclude the ordinary people from exercising their sovereign powers. They should restore to them their sovereign powers and convoke a conference on the basis of the various multinationals that constitute the federation of Nigeria. Let every nationality be represented, and let these nationalities fashion out what Nigeria they want. And once they have fashioned out the Nigeria they want, nobody should interfere with that when the sovereign decision of the Nigerian people is made known. They should propagate the constitution of the free people of Nigeria freely arrived at in a very exhaustive discussion by the various constituents and nationalities that make up Nigeria. That is my view.
In other words, you are against the restructuring of Nigeria?
I don’t know what you mean by that. I said I am against this notion of corrupt politicians sitting and saying this is how we want Nigeria to be, either six, seven or eight zones. I said give the Nigerian people a Sovereign National Conference, their ability to restructure their nation state into any number of component units, give the functional government whatever powers they want, whether they should have residual powers left to be exercised by the regions or regional governments or whatever name they give them. I said the sovereign people of Nigeria in a democratically convoked sovereign National Conference involving all nationalities of Nigeria, not pre-conceived notions of politicians in Nigeria and I call them corrupt, fighting for power over one another and pretending to be representing the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani speaking people. No. These people don’t represent anybody. They represent their money. I said give the people on the basis of the components and tribes of Nigeria and let’s convoke this conference. Not Jonathan and Obasanjo. The game they played is just that of confusion.
President Muhammadu Buhari has been accused of undermining the principles of federal character in appointing government officials. Some interest groups are now accusing him of favouring the North. Do you think the same way, even though you are from the North?
You want to find out from me whether Buhari is favouring the North?
Give me the statistics. If you can give me the statistics of all the permanent secretaries in the ministries, if they favour only the people from the North, of course, he is violating the constitution. Give me all the federal appointments, give me all the people who are in them because I don’t know. I live in the village. And Nigerians are deceiving themselves that their salvation lies in many constitutions and doing many abracadabara that they are going to restructure. One professor said there should be six regions. Convert the zones that are military aberrations into regions and stuffs like that. It wouldn’t work. What will work is to convoke a Sovereign National Conference involving all, and I underline, all the nationalities of Nigeria. If the nationalities of Nigeria are 250, convoke them all. If they are 500, convoke all the 500. If they are 1,000, convoke a National Conference involving all those 1,000 nationalities. These are the true people that form the federation of Nigeria. Then throw this question to them. And all the games that Obasanjo played when he was in power and produced his own, and those Jonathan played when he was in power and produced his own and created this new thing called restructuring, throw all of them as recommendations to the Sovereign National Conference. Decisions from the Sovereign National Conference should be implemented. That is the implication of sovereign because the sovereign people of Nigeria cannot subject their decisions to a parliament that is manipulated by a political party or barons of money.
Considering the high hopes and expectations of the majority of Nigerians, how do you view the present government, especially as the problems of the people are said not to be addressed fast enough?
I don’t believe that the problems of the people are not being addressed. And it is not the North that is running the government for God’s sake. It is General Buhari and his cabinet, made up of the people that are his friends in APC. It’s an APC government and not government of the North. I am a leader in the North. There are certain things about this government that I don’t like. It is not the North that is running the government. It is General Buhari, a former military Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He joined a political party with his friends in Igboland, Yorubaland and across Nigeria. They captured power and they are doing their best according to the announcement they made to the Nigerian people. They said they were going to concentrate on getting rid of corruption. You should assess them on that basis. Then they said they would diversify the Nigerian economy, assess them on that basis. They said they were going to be fairer than the activities that were practiced by our government; I was in PDP.
Assess them on that. Don’t assess them as government of the North. It is not a government of the North. It is a government of the APC with the president coming from the North, the vice-president coming from the West and ministers, many of them coming from the East and permanent secretaries, many of them coming virtually from the majority states of the South. So, it is a government run by politicians on the basis of the pronouncement they made in their manifesto and policy statement where they stressed that their concentration was going to be on retrieving stolen money; that there was too much corruption and that they will fight corruption frontally. Are they fighting corruption frontally? I think these are the areas you should stress.
Some people are saying even the fight against corruption is lopsided and that it is targeted at personalities in the opposition party, the PDP.
Why not? They took over power from the PDP and they accused PDP of stealing. As politicians, are they not to prove their points? But I think they should go beyond that. If there are thieves within the APC, they should catch them. And they have been catching them. They have been sending them to jail. This blanket generalization at distorting Nigeria’s efforts… You see, politicians have done very badly in Nigeria. Whenever they have problems in confronting our economic or political problems, they are not tough enough to face up to the problem. They just run to the enclave of their regions. I sympathise with them because we are all from tribes. But I am a Northerner from a very major tribe.
I am a Tiv man and there is no Tiv man in the Federal Executive Council of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I can prove to anybody that there are more than 12 million Tiv people across Nigeria. I can prove to anybody who is fair minded that we dominate at least three states in Nigeria. And we are in the Federal Capital Territory in large numbers. How can you be running a federal government where decisions about Nigeria are being discussed and such a huge group of people that made perhaps more impact at keeping Nigeria as one than any other single tribe is excluded from decision making process. Is it right? No, it is not right. Am I supposed to talk about it and fight them? No. It’s just to talk about it and I have. This is why I said we need a Sovereign National Conference of nationalities in this country. And we need to be truthful to ourselves. What do we want? We want a good nation, let everybody be represented. Then, let’s discuss from the experiences we have had after staying together for 100 years. People like me are over 80 years now. I am strong, and I will go there. I have very strong views about this great nation. The Azikiwe and Awolowo were more nationalistic than all these bunch of crooks that ran this country aground. In the last war, over three million people died and they have started again to say this tribe did this and that. That is injustice.
And that is probably why they are talking about the negotiability of the sovereignty of Nigeria. Can the sovereignty of Nigeria be negotiated?
There is nothing in this country that is happening that didn’t happen in any other modern country. But what is the thing that is wrong with Nigeria? Those of us who are aged, instead of us to be honest and face the problem, anytime there is a tough decision to be taken, we run back to our tribes.
We don’t speak the truth. And we have power. We abuse the power. Everybody that wants power in this country abuses power. Talk about power. We should talk about a correct system that is good, that nobody will abuse power. I mean, how on earth can people who ran this country for several years and ran it to the ground like the so-called leaders of the PDP make noise that this man who does not have the preparation they had with his team who have come for one year and within one year, there is organized commentary that this man has failed. Everybody wants to pack up and go and hand over to the PDP which stole Nigeria into the grave. How can one person steal billions of dollars? And they are many in the PDP.
How can somebody be so bold to have $300 million in his bank account or how can somebody’s countenance find in his account monies, an ordinary woman that had the privilege to serve the country, up to $300 million. They killed this country and some jokers are feeling that Buhari should have sorted out this problem in one year. You know it’s not fair. These people were there for five years and a half, and you want Buhari, because he is from the North, to have sorted all these problems within the period that everybody is fighting. Big men have taken their money which they stole, pushed it into publicity and propaganda and they have allowed them to keep these monies and they are using them to fight all the things that APC wanted to do. One year for one man to fix everything?