A delegate to the 2014 National Conference and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), tells
BAYO AKINLOYE what he thinks about calls for restructuring.
Why do you think many politicians are calling for a restructuring of Nigeria?
Nigeria is facing a lot of challenges and the sudden call by politicians for a restructured Nigeria is not well-meaning because they are making such calls for a political end aimed at 2019 and they are already taking their positions. Politicians cannot sit down in one place and discuss solely in their interest to promote something that is fashionable. They have started to bandy around the word ‘restructure.’
Civil societies first used the word ‘restructure’ in 1979. But all through the decades, we have been going downhill. Suddenly, it has become fashionable now to talk about restructuring to gain power because, like it or not, Nigeria is completely fractured. You have the possibility of the All Progressives Congress not remaining in power in 2019; you have the Peoples Democratic Party that is almost dead.
In all this, politicians are taking positions. They are looking for alliances. They are in all kinds of caucuses in Abuja, Enugu and Kaduna and it is the sound of restructuring that binds them all together. One needs to point out very strongly that they can’t use us any way they like. When they find it convenient to use us, they use a word to buy us. Once they win they will go and live in Abuja. They build no roads, schools, hospitals – nothing. And, that is not going to stop. The only way that can stop is to confront the political elite. We can’t restructure if we don’t even know whether to restructure. The political elites’ debate is full of deceits.
What is restructuring and can it address the nation’s woes?
Nigeria’s problem is not about restructuring. Nigeria’s problem can be likened to a marriage that is not working and the husband says to the wife, ‘Let us restructure by living in different rooms or stay together in one room.’ That doesn’t resolve the underlying tension, if the man, for instance, always goes out to act in an unbecoming manner. The only way they can ‘restructure’ their marriage is for the couple to sit down and identify the cause of the problem in the marriage. There is only one way we can begin to talk about restructuring or zoning, if that is what we want: How do you know if we want restructuring? How do you know we don’t want to go our separate ways? Because, in 1914, we were forced to live together by the colonialists; in 1960, the colonialists imposed a constitution on us. And then, the military took over, and in 1998, the military imposed on us another constitution.
So, Nigerians have not actually sat down to ask that question that Bola Ige asked long ago: ‘Do we really want to be one country?’ Is it a crime to ask that question? I don’t think so. Therefore, when that question is answered in the positive, then the second question will be: what kind of country do we want? It may not be a regional system; it may not be presidential; it may be parliamentary. I have no idea. All this requires a discussion, that’s my point.
If the political elite are using calls for restructuring to hoodwink the electorate so that they can gain power in 2019, what can be done to stop them?
It’s a huge challenge because the political elite with the resources at their disposal have practically fractured Nigeria. The point where the other components of the Nigerian society is very weak is civil societies. Civil societies, I must admit, even though I am a member, are extremely weak. But that does not mean that people will not speak about it. I want it to be on record that when this happens, I said it. Whether it succeeds or not, I can say what I think is important. Nigerians need to organise themselves and confront the political elite because the political elite do not give us value. At my age, I have not enjoyed any grant from Nigeria. What loyalty do I owe Nigeria? Nothing! My loyalty is not just that I am a Nigerian and hold a green passport. It has to do with something that the leadership of this country has done for me, which is able to persuade me to stand up for the country as a proud Nigerian because its leadership has given electricity, a good life, comfort, health care, etc. Now, there are no such things. The fact that the civil society is weak doesn’t mean those of us who talk shouldn’t say these things.
If the country agrees to restructure, what kind of political structure will you recommend?
I am not sure about parliamentary system. But, I will prefer a regional system of government. Because I know that part of the problem in Nigeria is that the so-called federal system is not federal; it is unitary. There is too much power vested in the Federal Government. Therefore, I will recommend two things: to create a more balanced federal system so that the Federal Government does not have all the powers. Whether it is at state level or regional level, at whatever level, there is the need for the Federal Government to give up a lot of its powers so that the federation is balanced up and then the federation can be more efficient. There are a lot of things the Federal Government should take its hands off – like agriculture, health, education – these are matters that should be handled at the state level, even electricity. Can you imagine if all the 36 state governments had the mandate to power up their states? You will have 36 Fasholas, not one Fashola running around Nigeria. Why can’t we simply say in the constitution that each state should provide its own electricity? Why do we have to have a Federal Road Safety Corps that issues driver’s licence, whereas that is a responsibility for local governments in other countries?
Even if there is restructuring, having devolved power to the states, we still need to look into what the state and federal governments should allow the private sector to do, so that government is lean and efficient and capable of delivering the relevant policies and services that the masses need. As of today, all ideas are based in Abuja –financial decisions, trade policies, etc. They forget that the private sector is richer than the government. I know many Nigerians who can raise any amount of money, three times the national budget. Abroad, the private sector is not something the government trifles with. In a restructured Nigeria, I will like to see political and economic reforms; I will like to see policy reforms. I will like to see a more efficient, easy-to-handle government that cares about the people. Restructuring is not about allowing some politicians to become new masters and still exclude the people. Nigerians are excluded from governance. The restructuring must include equity, justice and fairness. I will like to see a social programme initiated for poor, old, and disabled people. In America, it is called the Social Security Administration; in the United Kingdom, it is called the Benefits Agency. Fifty per cent of the American budget goes to benefits because that’s what government should do: care for the people, the vulnerable. The government is there to assist people.
The UK spends £102bn on its National Health Services. The budget of the NHS is more than that of the entire African countries put together. Our government needs to copy from the examples I am referring to and they can do that by following the standards set by the United Nations through the Sustainable Development Goals. The least of what our government should do for its people; chapter two of our constitution spells that out. And, by electoral law, that chapter of the constitution is incorporated into the constitutions of all political parties. But, what the parties are doing is not in tandem with that. This is part of the restructuring that should take place. Restructuring isn’t just about taking more powers away from Abuja and giving them to states. Restructuring is a complex concept; we must all sit down and discuss and define it. Once that is done, we can then implement it.
You were a delegate to the 2014 National Conference. Do you think there is something in that report that can benefit this country if considered and implemented?
Your question presupposes that we want to be one. The first question is: do we want to remain as one united country? Who told you we want to be one? You can’t assume that. But if we sit down and agree that we have a common agenda and interest to be together, then we can talk about the kind of union that we want. That was the mistake of the national conference. We have been having national conferences going back to the time of Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, and (Olusegun) Obasanjo. They didn’t create the conferences in order to promote the interest of Nigeria. They created the conferences for their own personal interests. IBB created it to find a way to become a civilian leader – it crashed. Abacha created it in order to become a civilian leader – he died. Obasanjo created his own in order to become a third-term leader – he failed. Goodluck Jonathan created his own in order to have a seven-year tenure and to avoid election – he failed. So, why should I recommend any of such reports?
So, why were you part of the delegation to the 2014 confab?
I went because I felt it was necessary to go. That is why Tunde Bakare and I made it a point not to accept our N12m allowances, because we came there to make a point that, while the conference was a good platform, it was important that delegates looked beyond it and considered the motive of the people that created it. The conference was concluded and its report submitted to (former) President Jonathan, who simply created another committee and changed everything we had said. So, you can see that the four reports I referred to initiated by the four presidents were not born out of good motivations. We need to have a process – and I have no answer to what that process will be – that will give us people who will, out of love of nation and sacrifice, take Nigeria on the great path. Nigeria ought to be among the top 10 countries in the world, but our politicians have crippled the nation and reduced it to a lame duck. We have about 50 to 70 people keeping the country in bondage. What we can do is plead with these people or overthrow them – overthrowing them will be an uphill task but not a mission impossible; pleading with someone like Obasanjo to lead a campaign to tell his fellow old men to allow young men to govern Nigeria and give examples of how it had happened.
Do you support Nnamdi Kanu’s agitation for an independent state of Biafra?
I understand it (Kanu’s agitation), even though I don’t support it. Many young men are frustrated. They have nothing to do and little to lose. Nnamdi Kanu has a right to self-determination. Whether he will succeed is a different thing because it’s a long process: you have to file your papers to the United Nations; you have to set up a motion for referendum; you have to persuade your people. It’s a matter of consensus, not by violence or hate speeches. So, I didn’t support that part of his campaign. But I will support any Nigerian – those northerners who asked Igbo to leave have a right to say so. They haven’t broken any law. They may be politically incorrect but there is no law that says you can’t speak, provided that you don’t speak in a way that generates heat.
It is important also to state categorically that what the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, said that Nigeria’s unity is sacrosanct is not correct. There is nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria’s sovereignty because Nigeria’s law recognises the right of sub-nationalities — the right to self-determination of whatever group is agitated, be it the Ijaw or Igbo, as long as they generate enough momentum and persuade their people to support them. But they must do so within the ambit of the Nigerian law – for anyone to go outside Nigerian law, it will be unconstitutional.