Even though the rising tension among the teeming youths of the country calls for concern, the development did not come as a surprise to some people. One of those in this class is the former Minister of Information, Dr Walter Ofonagoro. Speaking to WILLY EYA, he gave reasons for the tension among other national issues.
There is rising tension in the country today. In the East, we have echoes of Biafra, and there is a counter-narrative in the manner of a quit notice by the Arewa youths in the North. How do you feel about the development?
The problem has been there since Nigeria was created and it would continue to be there until we find a solution. Before independence, our political leaders negotiated carefully the terms and conditions upon which we are going to survive as a nation and on those terms, they agreed to have independence on October 1, 1960. In fact in 1953, Anthony Enahoro moved a motion for independence at the federal House of Representatives without the parties having met to properly agree on that particular step. He came from the Action Group(AG) which was the smallest party in the House and it did not have the majority to muster such a motion. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) did not support that and on their way home, they were stoned and every radio station along the way between Lagos and Ilorin reported it. I think Akintola went to Kano to give a political lecture to their followers and brought to their attention that the Northern delegation walked out of the parliament when their party had moved for independence and the Northern masses were very upset and they rioted and started looting the property and shops of the Igbo in Kano. That was the first major riot in Nigeria. Thereafter, the negotiation continued in many constitutional conferences in London and Nigeria and at the end of the day, they agreed on October 1 date for independence. The North refused to accept internal self government until they were ready. The East and West accepted internal self government in 1956 but the North did not accept it until pre-independence in 1959 after they were sure that their conditions to be part of Nigeria had been agreed upon; that they would run their own affairs; the federal character thing and so on were all agreed to. But the first federal election of 1964 ended in disaster with the country being polarised into two camps. One camp of the NPC was with a faction of the AG and it was called the Nigerian Democratic Party (NDP) by Akintola who was having problems with Pa Awolowo; there was also the Nigerian National Alliance headed by Ahmadu Bello.The other was the NCNC which was led by Michael Okpara and which aligned with the AG led by Chief Awolowo who was then the leader of the opposition in the federal parliament. They called the alliance United Progressives Grand Alliance(UPGA). The two forces met each other on the field. At the end, UPGA boycotted the election on the ground that it was massively rigged. But Abubakar Tafewa Balewa went ahead and insisted that the result must be declared; he was forced to declare the result and the NPC and the NNDP alliance took over power. There was massive riot in the West. Nigeria hosted the Commonwealth Ministers Conference in 1965 and in January 1966, there was military coup and the government came to an end. In effect, our independence lasted only five years. And everything that was agreed on for independence was jettisoned; the military suspended the constitution and abrogated it. From May 1967, they created 12 states out of the regions. It was the creation of the 12 states that actually triggered the civil war. This is because the states were created without consultation. The Eastern region was not consulted before the creation and the region was then suffering from the pain of millions of their people killed in the North. That continued from May 1966 to May 1967 without any effort by the Federal Government to resolve the fears and grievances of the people. The East then felt it could not continue with the situation and there were efforts to resolve the differences. On January 4 and 5, they met at Aburi in Ghana and agreed on terms of some workable confederation arrangements. And when they came back, the Federal Government reneged on the terms of the Aburi accord. So, the East went ahead to do a unilateral implementation of the Aburi accord and the Federal Government saw it as the Eastern region usurping their powers. So, the Federal Government decided to break the power of the East by breaking the country into 12 states of which three were in the East. As a result of the state creation, the Igbo who have been in the 60 percent majority suddenly turned into a minority and had only one state out of three in the regions. The Eastern region, in their response to the unilateral creation of states by former Head of State, Gen Gowon declared Biafran independence on May 30. So, within three days of the creation of states, the East just seceded and by July 6, the country went into war till January 7, 1970 and Biafra was defeated.
Why have the issues refused to go away?
The issues that led to the war were never discussed. If there had been a peace conference at the end of the war, all these crises that we are having now would not be there. The war ended without a peace conference. The defeated were simply dictated to and whatever they decided was law. The Federal Government then was controlled by the North and West. They went ahead to run the country the way they liked, and there was no constitutional conference until 1978 on the basis of which we got 1979 constitution. But that was about eight years after the civil war ended. They created more states to increase the number from 12 to 19. The military was there for 13 years before they had the constitutional conference. The 19 states structure was done in February 1976 and they did not have a constitutional conference until 1978. And by 1979, they brought in civilian rule. Two more states of Katsina and Akwa Ibom were later created. In 1991, nine more states were created and brought the states to 30. In 1996, six more states were created which brought the number to 36. The creation of states was piecemeal depending on the whims and caprices of whoever was the Head of State at that time. And these were supposed to be regions that were carefully established by the British and negotiated in terms of their relationship with each other over the years. Suddenly, they were replaced by states. In between, we have had other constitutional conferences. There was one, the 1988 constitution which was never adopted. It was never ratified into law and there was also the late Abacha constitutional conference which I took part in between 1994 to 1995. At the end of the day, Gen Abacha did not sign that into law but all the constitutional conferences presented an attempt for national unity and integration. The decisions of the constitutional conference of 1994/95 were eventually retouched by the committee set up by former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998 and given down to us in the 1999 constitution. And because there had been so much discontent over issues that have not been properly resolved, former President Obasanjo called for a constitutional conference during his days but the findings were shelved and nothing happened.
Former President Jonathan also organised a constitutional conference in 2014 but he never signed it into law. That is what the National Assembly is asking for and that they want to look at it again. There is a haphazard approach to all these things and the youths are getting rather restless. Since after the civil war, they have abolished the teaching of history in Nigerian schools. I don’t know why they did it but it was very ill-advised. Most of the youths of today do not know anything about the history of this country and the war. They do not know what caused it or the problem the country has gone through to get to where she is today. And you know when people are ignorant, they believe anything they tell them. Now, you see a situation where youngsters are coming up and demanding Biafra. They were not even born when Biafra was defeated. Biafra war ended January 12, 1970. There is nobody who fought in the Biafran war who should be under 67 years today. 1970 to now is 47 years ago. Anybody who fought in that war should be at least 18 or 20 at that time. So, you can see the knowledge gap between the younger ones of those who actually fought the war and the present youths who are agitating. They do not know the genesis of the crises, what transpired and how we got to where we are today. That is why it is very important to teach history in schools so that people can know the facts and be better involved.
What are your views on the 2014 National Confab by former President Jonathan which the Senate is now calling for, to discuss?
The constitutional conference’s decisions having been put together should be put before the parliament. Let them look at it again and let Nigerians solve this problem once and for all. I think that in this way, the restructuring that people are clamouring for would take place. The structure that was agreed at independence was jettisoned by the military perhaps, to enable them administer the country better because the military is a unitary organisation. They have a command arrangement. They do not have a federal arrangement where the supreme commander would share power with lieutenants but the federal system is different. Don’t mind the feeding bottle federalism where every month, you go and share whatever is allocated to you. And money is coming from oil and when oil has a problem in the international market, the country would be in problems. You can see that there is definitely need for restructuring of the country before the country can be bereft of conflict and crises. Having fought the war and disrupted the orderly progress we would have had at independence if we had not had the civil war, we now have to look at the structure again to see what structure we need that can guarantee stability and peace in this country. Without that, all these conflicts would continue.
From the picture you have painted in what appears to be the history of the crisis, what are your fears for Nigeria?
I do not have any fears except if we do not take the right decisions. It is in the national interest that we resolve all these before it gets out of hand. We should hurry up and resolve them before it gets out of hand. The more we delay, the more dangerous it becomes. Go to America, she has every tribe in the world. The pagans, Christians, Muslims, any religion in the world is in America, and they are not killing themselves. Why can’t we in Nigeria accommodate ourselves and we are on our own soil? America left their shores. If you go to America, race is not an issue. Look at Barak Obama; his father went to America from Kenya to study and when his father went back, his mother stayed to raise them. The guy got good education and before you knew it, he was the president of the United States because he was born in America. And that applies to every person born there. One boy whose father went to America with me in the 60s, he went back and became a member of the Senate. Look at the recent election in the United Kingdom, seven Nigerians won election into the House of Commons. So, those of us who went abroad and came back, we came back because we are patriotic. There was nothing really attractive back here because we had all the opportunities over there but we gave them up and came back in order to build a great nation. But if we continue like this, children who go abroad, do you think they are going to return. Most Nigerians who are going abroad now are not going there with the intention of coming back. Look at some of our athletes; many are going to sign up with foreign countries. Nigerians are throwing their best brains away because they do not know how to establish a structure to make this country a home for everybody. Nobody likes to live under a condition of insecurity and instability. The situation applies to every part of the country and not any particular tribe. Every single ethnic group has many people doing very well abroad. Is that the kind of Nigeria we want? Look at what happens in the Mediterranean! People trek across the desert through hostile places like Libya and drown in the sea because of the situation in their country. Doesn’t that make you think that something is wrong here? It is very embarrassing and we should do something about it. We should have conditions here that would make people proud of their country and not a place they want to run away from. Look at the news that the Federal Government has sent the police to guarantee law and order on the Kaduna/Abuja road. Armed robbers have taken over that place and the Federal Government has sent the Police and Army there to make sure that people can drive safely. What about other roads in the country? The underworld has taken roots in this country more than before; there is so much insecurity. But when the country is restructured and we practise democratic governance, most of those things would go away because people would be empowered to sit down and take charge of the administration of their own areas. You would see that the country would become a different place. What made America what it is today are the people. But when the people are not secure, happy and empowered to be committed to the country’s future, would there be a future. They have to see a structure that would make people believe in the future of the country. So, unless we get our actions right and know how to resolve these problems structurally and administratively, we are just laying the foundation for future insecurity on a massive scale in this country. You have seen the way herdsmen behave all over the South; has the Federal Government come up with any solution to that? There is no solution in sight. The Federal Government has not tackled the problem.