Commodore Sunny Emmanuel Akintomide ‘SEA’ Olamilokun, is a retired officer of the Nigerian Navy, military strategist and political analyst. In this interview, he spoke about political military relationship, the war against terror and the need for equity and fairness in the country’s political structure.
What is your impression of Nigeria in her nearly 60 years of independence?
The founding fathers of Nigeria, and by that, I mean those who fought for our independence anticipated that at 60, Nigeria would have been a prosperous nation and I can say without mincing words that Nigeria is really a prosperous nation at 60 years. I say this because from the three Regions we had in 1960 to four Regions in 1963 and now 36 States, Nigeria has remained an indivisible country, despite the civil war. Nigeria is indeed the giant of Africa, not just because of the population, but because of what we have as resources . It is not just the crude oil alone, we have a lot of resources. Remember in the 1960s, we had the palm products from the Eastern Region, the cocoa from the Western Region and the cotton and groundnut from the Northern Region. Despite the discovery of crude oil, we still have all these products, all we need to do is to make these things work for us. Nigeria is really a prosperous nation and I am very proud to be a Nigerian.
From the days of the palm products from the Eastern Region, the cocoa from the Western Region and the cotton and groundnuts from the Northern Region, Nigeria has become a mono product economy based on crude oil. As things are today because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the economy is threatened. What do we do?
There is a problem with every mono economy situation. Nigeria has found itself in this problem because of crude oil. A Yoruba proverb says ‘before you had maize, what was the chicken eating?’ What I am simply saying is that if we survived in the 1950s and 1960 without crude oil, we can still survive. The problem with the Nigerian economy is because of the over-dependence on crude oil. But I must say that right now, things are really changing. I watched a programme recently where somebody was talking about the various investments in agriculture. All Nigeria has to do is to go back to the basics, the position we were in before the discovery of crude oil. If we add the little, we are getting from crude oil to revenue from the agricultural sector, our economy will grow. It is unfortunate that we are depending only on crude oil, but it is not really our fault. Everybody wants prosperity and that is the only product we have to get prosperity from. But with this global pandemic, the 2020 budget was forecast on $20 per barrel, now the price of crude oil is falling below $30 and it may fall lower. All we need to do is to rethink the economy and go back to the era where we had many avenues from where we get revenue, it may take some time, but if our policy makers think properly on that, it can be achieved.
The borders are currently closed, how will that help in refocusing the economy?
I am afraid the closure of the border will create problems for us. I know a lot of people import from China and that many of our products are also sent there. The border closure is going to affect our economy, but the Nigerian spirit is such that it cannot die, we will come out of this and be prosperous. I am not bothered because the recession that will come from this pandemic will be global, it will not be only Nigeria. My personal opinion is that the way others are reacting, Nigeria will react better.
In the book, ‘A Scholars Perception of Governance, Politics and Military Strategy’ launched recently, you likened the governance structure of Nigeria at independence to ‘Three Musketeers’, the North, the East and the West. Today, the structure is six geopolitical zones, who could be musketeers in their own right. But the East is crying of marginalization in the political equation. How has this affected governance?
You are dragging me into politics, but I can tell you that the east has been a prominent figure in the Nigerian equation. I was a young boy in Kaduna when the Mid-West Region was created and the Nigerian Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) won election in the Mid-West. The NCNC was thought to be an Eastern party but it is not because in Ilesha where I come from, the NCNC was the dominant party there. You also see that the first indigenous Governor-General of Nigeria, an intelligent erudite scholar, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was from the East, he later became the President of Nigeria in the parliamentary system of government we had then. So, the East in effect has never been marginalized. Maj. Gen. Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi who took over power after the coup of 1966 is also from the East and he ran the affairs of this country for some months. Fast-forward to the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the Second Republic, the Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme was from the East. You can see that every time, the East has been part and parcel of this country. The problem is that politicians try to divide us by telling us that some people are from the East, some are from the North and some are from the West. Gen Azubuike Ihejirika has been Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in this country; he is a friend; we went to National War College together. If you look at this from this perspective, are we marginalising the East? I will say no. But I must add that every part of this country must feel a sense of belonging by being able to head. The reasons for the feeling that the East has not been the president, the time will come. The East will definitely be president of this country one day and we will all be here. Even now that we are talking about the East, you know it is no longer fashionable? We are talking about Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo States. We are talking about five states. You may even start talking about Cross River and Rivers States as it was in those days; they now call themselves South-South. Look at the colonial era, the East had been prominent and will continue to be prominent, don’t let anybody deceive you. I am optimistic that nothing will change our equation of the Nigeria that I know; we are a strong indivisible country.
You are also of the view that the military can play a crucial role in the politics and governance of Nigeria?
I am a military man and as we are discussing am I not contributing? The problem civilians face is that we think that military men are just soldiers and that is not true. One of the officers that came for my book launch is Air Vice Marshall Ladi Smith, he has a PhD and is the author of several books. He has written on the structure and problems we have with insurgency. When we talk about insurgency, every military man knows what the problem with insurgency is. If civilians and media try to push the military to one side, they are just wasting their time; they will still have to come back to the military. At the Command and Staff College, they are trained for that, they are also trained at the National war College and the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies. When I say the military has the capacity to contribute meaningfully to the discourse of politics and governance in Nigeria, it is because we are involved. It is the military that should subjugate its power to political authority, but it is not too easy, but they have to do it because it is no longer fashionable to have coups. You will rely on the advice of the military. In the United States for instance, nobody will ignore the advice of Gen Colin Powel. It is not proper for the political leadership to ignore the military.
Talking about insurgency, the war against Boko Haram has been on for over 10 years now. What is the problem?
The problem is with what I will call asymmetric warfare, that is a war where one party has the instruments of power of the nation and the other party is hiding but comes out occasionally to attack and then run away. The problem with that kind of warfare is that it can linger on for a longtime because the reasons why the war started in the first instance may not have been removed. What is the meaning of Boko Haram? It means Western education is not acceptable. Where there is that kind of orientation, you need to tell them that Western education is really very important. I think we have to go to the basics. The military are doing well. That the war has not ended means some people are benefiting from it. Who are those benefiting? It is the Boko Haram themselves. As long as they attack and run away, it is difficult to round them up, it is not like you are fighting a standing army, they are clandestine and that is why it is so unfortunate. To win this kind of war, you have to first win the mind of the people. Eleven years is a longtime; we ought to have finished with it because if we don’t finish with it, the younger ones being born will also join Boko Haram. We had similar experience with Niger Delta when there was problem there but now it is dying down. We need to apply the same approach to Boko Haram insurgency.
The idea of setting up a commission and overseas training for ‘repentant’ Boko Haram has been raised in the Senate, what do you think of it?
They are Nigerians and if training them abroad will help, like I said, they believe that Western education is bad and if they are now changing their minds and they are trained abroad, will they still come back to say Western education is bad? If the reason for the training is for them to change, then there is nothing wrong with it, although there is the other side that they could come back and be re-indoctrinated.
There are reports that some of these ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members could be recruited into the military. Is this a good military strategy when the war against Boko Haram is still on?
I am not aware of any such move to recruit repentant Boko Haram into the military, but I could recommend it because information gathering is very important in fighting insurgents. If these insurgents are now repented, they could be the source of information for the military; so I think it is alright.
They could also be Boko Haram spies and agents in the military?
If they are spies, they will be caught because for every military man, another military man is watching you; so he will be caught. When somebody is behaving funny in your location, your duty is to report him.
Agitation on where the presidency will go in 2023 is ongoing, what do you think?
It doesn’t bother me where the presidency goes, what bothers me is that there should be fairness and there should be a situation where the umpire is above board. I don’t know why by now we still can’t go for electronic voting. The world is going digital. My position is that as long as the election is free and fair and everybody that has the right to vote are allowed to vote, whoever comes in is the wish of the people. 2023 will be very delicate because we would have transited between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC). In international politics they will tell you; it means that we are consolidating our democracy. I’m not saying we should leave the APC for the PDP or that the APC should continue, but whatever happens in 2023 will tell us where we are; the world is watching us.
Ethnicity will play a role in 2023, the South East strongly feels it is the turn of the zone to produce the president?
These issues of ethnicity and religion are only discussed by the elite. The common man is not interested in who rules them. We have had a Muslim-Muslim ticket in this country and they won. The common man is not interested in whether you are a Christian or a Moslem. In the South West, religion may not be an issue. In the South East, there are pockets of Moslems. Ethnicity and religion are used by the elite to divide us. But I have said it that the East has the right to become whatever they want to become. But you also have to look at the political parties. If the APC for instance brings out an Igbo and the PDP brings out an Hausa, what will be the situation at the polls? I personally don’t like zoning because it is telling us that whether we like it or not, a particular zone must produce the leader. What if the best brain is from another zone? Everybody in this country has the right to be president provided the electorate say they should be.
What is your view on the growing agitation for restructuring?
I will want to know what is wrong with the structure we have now. Some people are complaining of marginalization; we have problem with resource control, we have problems with so many things. Restructuring in a sense means the country will be on hold while we restructure. We already have the Senate and the House of Representatives; if they cannot get us to where we need to be, we could as well ask for a new constitution. The way politicians are looking at restructuring, they talk about resource control and who should be what. I agree all these are part of evolving an enduring constitution, but if we are not satisfied with the one we have, we should go for a new constitution.