By Vincent Kalu
When the history of constitution making is written in Nigeria, the name of Dr. Uma Oke Eleazu will be scrolled in bold prints. The octogenarian has made sterling contributions towards building the nation. In 1976, he was appointed Director/Coordinator of the National Policy Development Centre (Think Tank), a post he held until the body metamorphosed into the present National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos and he became its pioneer Director of Research. He has authored many books.
He was a member of the 1979 Constitution drafting committee. He was also a member of the committee that drafted the 1999 Constitution and in 2006, he also served on the committee set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to look into the constitution.He had also served as Executive Director of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and a former Chairman of Petroleum Product Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary of NNPC.In 1993, he ventured into politics and aspired to be the president on the platform of Social Democratic Party (SDP).
In this interview, the technocrat and elder statesman warned that Nigeria may die if urgent attention is not paid to rebuild its faulty foundation. Excerpts:
How can you describe the state of the nation?
There are people who don’t want to hear other voices. Currently, there are too many voices, people saying one thing or the other. In the cacophony, it is difficult to know which to listen to as authentic voice. That is why sometimes, some of us prefer to say nothing.
The state of the nation is parlous; if it was a human being, the sickness is such as is likely to end in death if not properly handled. To begin with, if you say ‘state of the nation’, which nation? Nigeria is a state cobbled together by the British. It was our dream that the various nationalities will in the course of time become a nation. We have failed in that regard. So, Nigeria is not a nation. We can ask what is the state of the Federation? We can divide as the academics do and ask, are we talking about the economy, polity, or the society at large. We should take them one after the other.
The politics of Nigeria is based on a constitution. As a federation, there is a constitution, which is a contract between the nationalities that formed the federation. That constitution is in trouble because the operators, especially since January 15, 1966, have deviated from what the constitution was intended to be. It is no longer even today the classic federation, where each of the federating units come together to decide what power and how power is to be shared and in the process they decide how much power should be given up by each of the federating units to a central government, which becomes a federal government and how much power will be retained at the level of the federating units. But since the military took over in 1966 and started tinkering with the original constitution, things have not been the same. If you look at the process of states creation, first it was 12 states, then 19, 21 and 36 plus Abuja making 37; none of the states can be considered to be a federating unit. After these states were created, the military government did another thing; they changed the fiscal basis of a federation into the fiscal basis of a unitary system of government and that is why they created a Federation Account. The states that were created and the local governments under them became sub units of that unitary government first in Lagos and now in Abuja. So, we are no longer running really a federal system of government. What we are running is a unitary system of government in which other levels of government depend on the central government for their own survival. Because of that change in the constitution, the other levels of government abdicated their governing functions and depend only on getting money from the centre and spending it. There are few of the states that can say they have internally generated revenue due to their own activities. Some of the things they called, IGR, eventually also depended on laws created or made by the central government, including local taxes, sales taxes, VAT. They were all created by the central government. The Bible says, when the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do?
The foundation of what was Federal Republic of Nigeria has been destroyed by the military and so, it won’t stand, and that is why constitutional conference after constitutional conference, people keep on going back to, ‘we want resource control; we want zones and we want regions’.
Do you think we still need another constitutional conference when the report of the last one set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan has not been looked into?
It depends on what President Buhari wants to do. If I were in his position, I would bring back the report of that conference and examin it and be properly advised. I read the other day that the Senate is embarking on another constitutional review, with Ekweremadu again as the chairman of that committee. If you don’t read the daily parts, you will not know what went on in the constitutional conference. Part of my library is full of the 2005 Obasanjo’s aborted third term. It is in those daily reports that you see the sentiments of those who attended the conference. What the president and NASS need to do is to get the report of the last conference, look through it and decide what to do with it; to put it to the people through a referendum.
The president is fighting a corruption war and some are accusing him of singling the opposition in the war when some of his cabinet members whom they alleged are corrupt are treated as sacred cows because they funded his election, what is you take on that?
They have created that impression, and if it is not so, let them prove it. What we see is that majority of those that the EFCC is taking to court or probing are people in the other party. One will say, because they were the people in power, therefore they had their hands in the honey pot. The other people in the opposition didn’t have their hands in the honey pots, so there is nothing to probe. But when you realised that 40 percent of those who are in APC jumped from PDP, some are still joining so as to be covered and run away from the probe; that distracts from what people expected from what the president said he was going to do. I have the same impression that this thing is warped the way they are doing it. It doesn’t mean that any PDP person who has stolen money shouldn’t be prosecuted. If there is any APC among them who stole money, he should be prosecuted; that is justice; otherwise, in the end, he has fought nothing.
Bishop Kukah said recently that Nigerians are more divided now that ever before. There is this frenzy for the actualization of Biafra, there is the Shiites, Boko Haram in the North, OPC in the West and the Fulani herdsmen clashes with nationalities in the North central and the South. Against this background, do you entertain any fear for this country and what is it?
My fear is that this country may not survive. I have said it earlier that it is in a parlous state. It may die, and won’t be the first country that has ceased to exist as it was. It is a truth unless somebody is not looking at what is going on. That is what I referred to as cracks in this house called Nigeria. The foundation is weak, and has been destroyed. So, one has to get back to the foundation and draw up a constitution, which everybody will agree as a way of going back to true federal system, based on the ethnic nationalities that are now coming up. In 1953, we only talked of regions; by 1956, people started talking of, ‘we are minorities among these regions’. The East had its own minority problem; the West had its own minority problem, likewise the North. That was why Sir Wilkins Commission was set up. Fear is a major ingredient in destabilising any system.
If we do not address those fears, this country cannot stand. Sir Wilkins Commission had reasons why it didn’t recommend creation of more states before independence and said, if your policies addressed the fears of the minorities, they would have no more fears.Firm administrative structures should allay those fears, but it has not, and instead what we have is more and more recriminations among the ethnic groups. You mentioned the frenzy over Biafra. When the original Biafra was declared, what is now South-south, much of it was part of that Biafra. Those who are looking for the present Biafra, will it include South-south. There is another group, Lower Niger Peoples Congress. That is almost coterminous with the original Biafra. Have we asked ourselves whether in this Lower Niger Congress, the Ijaw people are ready to be in it and cooperate seriously with the Ibibio, Igbo etc. In other words, even within the Lower Niger group, there is a problem. Come to the West, in the Kogi, Ilorin areas, there is still problem. There was this Ilorin-Kaba merger, which Chief Awolowo made a point at the Constitutional conference in 1956 and it nearly broke this country because he said Ilorin and Kaba must be merged to the Western Region. The issue is coming back again, people are writing history about the Afonja, how the North conquered them before and that Ilorin is a vassal to Sokoto, and so you can’t touch it.
My fear for this country is that if we don’t do anything quickly with the foundation, which is the constitution, and agree on how we are going to live together, it will fall apart.