Despite the inherent advantages in a democracy as a system of government, many believe that the gains can only be realised if the right people are in positions of leadership. One of those in this school of thought is Robert Clarke, a renowned lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. He believes that virtually all politicians in Nigeria are not interested in service to the people but only after money. In this interview with WILLY EYA, he spoke further on this and various national issues.
As an elder statesman, what are your reflections on the state of affairs in the country today? Are you satisfied with the way things are going in Nigeria?
The state of affairs is not what one would be very happy about. However, one has to look at it not from the situation we find ourselves at the moment but the restructuring that is going on plus the potentials that we have. The situation is bad but the present administration is addressing them and in addition, the potentials that we have, if they are harnessed, I am sure this country would survive it.
From the way you are sounding, are you saying that the country is on course despite the present situation?
I honestly believe Nigeria is on course. We need to appreciate one thing. We have had successive governments in Nigeria, let me be honest with you; since 1998 when what you now call democracy started but which is not democracy, a clique of people have been ruling this country and leading us to nowhere. All successive governments have failed us in every aspect and coupled with that, we have a system of governance that is eroding all the financial assets of this country. We cannot afford the type of governance that we are going through. We are not ripe for a presidential system of government. Eighty per cent of our resources are used to maintain the system and the structure. So, I would not blame this present government so much but you take it or leave it, there is a different method in this government from the old system. If you look at it from the point of view of corruption, many people are saying the government is selective, yes it has to be selective. This is because those who are in government are different from those in the opposition. So, most of those people who are being arrested would be those who were in government. But one fine thing I have discovered is that many of these big shots are being taken back to the courts. Cases that had been adjourned sine dine since the past 10 years are now showing up. Now we have retired Generals in the Army who are being taken to the courts and vomiting money they have stolen. So, you can see that this system of government gives hope than the previous governments in the sense of accountability and allowing the people to be part of government.
A major challenge facing this government is that there is an emerging culture of violence. There are killings in virtually all parts of Nigeria –in Benue, Southern Kaduna, recently Ile-Ife and the usual incidents in the North East. What is your take on all of that?
Except for the young ones, these skirmishes in the North Central are not new in Nigeria. I met it when I was a young boy and that is about 70 years ago. That dichotomy has always been there but what has been keeping it at a low level is that the late Sauduana made the Hausa language a lingua franca of the whole Northern region. He ensured that every student going to any school in the North learns the Hausa language. And what is the effect of that? Where a Berom man, Tiv or a Fulani man stay in one room, they can communicate and talk in one language. There is a feeling of oneness, which we do not have in the South. If an Igbo man sits in a room with a Yoruba and Bendelite, the only language they can speak together and understand is English. So, the question of skirmishes has always been there but it has always been subdued. In 1950s, there was the Middle Belt crisis. Solomon Lar, Tarka were leading them and Awolowo joined them to call for a Middle Belt state. They have been calling for a Middle Belt state but the problem now is that there is poverty. Therefore, all these things are now coming out to light. The poor man is farming and the herdsman brings his cow to destroy it and there is anger. The man in Rivers State or in the South South is not getting business again and he resorts to kidnapping. So, it is the situation in the land that is bringing all these up. Don’t let us talk about the militancy, which is now rearing its head everywhere. So, it is the circumstances that we find ourselves; this is where you have poverty giving rise to all these vices and it is not uncommon in many other countries.
There has always been poverty in the land but what agitates the mind is the level of intolerance among the various ethnic nationalities. The recent case is the Yoruba/Hausa clash in Ile Ife.
I have always said it that the greatest mistake that was made in Nigeria is the creation of the 21 states or the creation of 36 states. It has not only created a dichotomy among the zones but even to smaller groups. Let me give you an example. The Igala today is ruling Kogi State. When they were in Benue State, they were claiming that they were the minority and they created the state for them but today, the minorities under them are claiming that they are victimising them. If you increase it to 40 or 50 states, there would be minority within minority. If you go to Ogun State, the Ijebu and the Remo man, they do not agree and they are all Ijebus. All these things have been there before. The Modakeke and Ife crisis has been there forever. But as I said, it is poverty that is the problem. Now, intolerance has taken over everything. The two greatest problems in Nigeria are religion and ethnicity. They are worse than corruption because they are the breeders and makers of corruption. The two have so divided this country.
Do you agree with those who insist that Buhari’s suspected tolerance of the activities of the herdsmen and the fact that he is also Fulani is the cause of the escalation of their clashes with farmers?
It is not fair to say that Buhari’s body language is the cause of the problem. As I said, the problems have been there. In Plateau State, my brother has a big farm and the herdsmen used to come there and one day, he shot one of the cows and they had to take him to the police station. The problem has been there but the thing now is that there is scarcity of everything. But it comes back to ethnicity and religion again. If the herdsman is in the same ethnic group with the farmer, they would not complain too much. But the division that this is an Hausa/Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba, Tiv man is the problem. The division has spoilt this country.
So, it is not fair to say that Buhari is tolerating Boko Haram. If not for him, Boko Haram would have eaten all of us up. He came in and within a year, he has flushed out Boko Haram as a force even though the remnants are still there. But I doubt whether being a Fulani man makes him think that the herdsmen are untouchables.
What is the way out of the various crises in Nigeria? Some are calling for restructuring; others are for self-determination, resource control and so on. What is your own position?
I have always said the type of restructuring that we need would not be based on sovereign tribal states in Nigeria. The Igbo man wants Biafra within Nigeria, the Yoruba wants Oduduwa land, I am not for that. The strength of Nigeria is based on its diversity. That is what makes Nigeria great. The only thing we can do is to go back to the 1963 constitution, which is the best Nigeria has ever had; we should evolve a six regional government with a central government. We should change this so called presidential system of governance to a parliamentary system where if you want to be president of Nigeria or Senate, you canvass for votes within your local government. You do not need to spend billions. Do you know that it costs almost N1 billion for a candidate to get the nomination of his party’s gubernatorial election? So, the system is creating corruption. It is going to kill the country.
So many ethnic nationalities in Nigeria support restructuring but the majority of the power elite from the core North want the status quo to remain. How would restructuring be achieved with the North not in support?
When you are talking about the core North, you are talking about the nine Hausa/Fulani states out of 19 of them.
And they are powerful…
You said that. History made them powerful but we are no more living in the past. Today, there are 19 states in the North and to be honest with you, the Hausa/Fulani are not even up to nine states. They are not as powerful as you think but what happened was that when the colonialists came here, they found it easy to deal with them because they already had a system of governance even though it was feudalistic but which the colonialists could use to develop their own native authority system of governance. They were the first people the colonialists discovered a system of governance which suited their divide and rule system in the North. But the Hausa/Fulani is not the dominant in the North. The remaining 11 out of 19 consists of almost 38 tribes and they would never come together. Look at Plateau State. There are 17 local governments and the Beroms are controlling only three local governments.
You are an Igbo man and you hear the name Professor Jerry Gana; you would think he is an Hausa man. No, he is not. He is a Christian and he is not even an Hausa man. That is the mistake many people make. You do not know the true Hausa/ Fulani from the Kanuri man, Taraba or Gongola. They are different people and by accident, they came into power because when the British people came, they taught them the art of taking over governance. They told Sauduana, do not send your children to go and read law or medicine. As soon as they finish secondary school, take them to the Police, Customs, Army, Immigration etc. Distribute them and take over the bureaucracy and then they can train them on the job. And they learnt a lot. They are the masters of bureaucracy.
As an accomplished lawyer with a lot of experience, how do you think we can achieve constitutional reform that would be acceptable to all?
We have to change our constitution but the people who can change it would not change it because it suits them. Let Mr President organise a referendum -A or B, do you want a parliamentary or presidential system? Send a bill to the National Assembly that I intend to do this referendum to be able to change the system of governance. Once the National Assembly passes the bill not knowing what the outcome would be, and they do the referendum and the people say yes to parliamentary system, the National Assembly has to approve it but they may not approve it. But God would enforce it but God would not come down to enforce it. If the people have spoken and the National Assembly refuses, then the president can handover to the military and say this agenda I cannot do it and it is the people’s voice, help me accomplish it one, two years and set it in place and you can go. It is the only way this can come through because the way we are going, only God would help us.
What are your fears for the nation?
I have no fears about Nigeria. We have been able to survive many odds in the past 60 years and we have learnt a lot of lessons. No Igbo man who went through the Biafra war would like to fight another war again. Of all the tribes in Nigeria, it is only the Igbo who could have fought that war. The Yoruba cannot fight that war. They would not; they would be afraid. It is only the Igbo as a tribe that could have fought that war and they fought it and lost. No other tribe would dare do it and even the Igbo would not want to repeat it. So, Nigeria may not fail. I am praying that we learn our lessons as we go on and for God to give us a leader that would be able to lead us out of ethnicity and religion.
On the road to 2019, what do you see?
From 1998/1999 that politicians came in till today, many things have changed in Nigeria. If you look back within the period of the last 16 years, issues handled by the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, 70 per cent of the cases are political. Much damage has been done to the psyche of Nigerians generally because of the emergence of partisan politics. We have to change the way we play politics. People who play politics in Nigeria do it because of money. Once we make politics not attractive for people to steal money, then we see a change. So, 2019 to me would not be different from 2015 and 2007 because you still have the same clique of politicians. So, I do not expect any change in 2019.
ˇDo you think there would ever be a time there is going to be a level playing field in this country?
There is no level playing field anywhere in the world. Look at what is happening in America today. The schism in America is worse than what is going on in Nigeria. Everything you see here is happening elsewhere. In Britain, the Scottish people are asking for independence. So, there is no level playing field. It is those of us who are in the field that would find a level-playing place.
But the difference here is that even though there may be such schism among the people, there is a system in place that ensures justice and equity for the people.
You have now come to the correct position. Democracy is useless if it is only just going to vote. There are certain institutions that have to be strengthened to make democracy work. The judiciary, police, legislature and so on, so that when you have an Attorney General, you would not find Mr President dictating to him what to do. So, once we attain that level, we are ok but it is not the position today. An Attorney General should not be the Minister of Justice but a different professional man who is devoid of politics so that he can give correct legal opinions on political and other matters. But once he is attached to a political party, he has to dance to the whims and caprices of that party.