Prof Akinyemi

A professor of political science and former Minister of External Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi, speaks with BAYO AKINLOYE on Nnamdi Kanu’s agitation, how Buhari can save Nigeria from collapse and why corruption persists

Do you think Nnamdi Kanu and the Indigenous People of Biafra are asking for too much that the Igbo should opt out of Nigeria?

There are different peculiarities under which there can be peaceful separation. An example is what happened in the old Czechoslovakia, when the Czech and the Slovak went their separate ways, because it was possible to draw clean lines of separation. But in most cases, separation had actually been through civil wars that carried heavy costs in terms of loss of lives and destruction of property, leaving a legacy of a lasting bitterness

A good example is India and Pakistan. Seventy years after, the lines of demarcation are still being hotly contested through militarily engagements.  In fact, India and Pakistan fought many wars in those 70 years. Achieving a peaceful, non-violent separation, by all means, is debatable along theoretical and practical lines.

For instance, what does Kanu mean by ‘Biafra’? There are states he included in Biafra and the people in those states have said they would have nothing to do with his proposed country. Already, there is a contention over where the lines of demarcation will be. I believe that we can still peacefully resolve the issue of the Nigerian question at this stage, provided we address the twin issue of fears of domination and marginalisation. We must address that. We must admit that there is something wrong with the Nigerian federal system as it is. We must look at the system that we operated, using the 1960 and 1963 constitutions with the necessary amendments. There has to be less arrogance and intolerance shown towards constituent elements of the Nigerian nation. You cannot use the temporary acquisition of power to impose a system on others, thinking everybody will be happy about it. Most of the problems in the world have come about through miscalculations – not deliberate (actions). Many wars fought in the world were as a result of miscalculations with various parties, underestimating how far-reaching their actions would be.

All I’m saying is that, I hope those who are in control of the Federal Government will not become complacent by ignoring the fact that other people are feeling hurt and are dissatisfied with the system that we have now. We shouldn’t because doing so will be a calamitous mistake. Who will win the confrontation, I don’t know. But what I know is that all parties will pay a heavy price – it will not be like the 1966/1967 (coup) all over again. It will not be like the 1967 to 1970 civil war all over again. Right now, there is a proliferation of weapons all over the country and the diffusion of grievances will create war fronts. The Nigerian military is stretched thin with all the challenges it’s currently coping with internally. I don’t think you want to put more pressure on it. We must seek a non-violent way. We must engage in dialogue. There must be, on the part of the Federal Government, the readiness to adopt a more sophisticated approach in promoting the dialogue and a preparedness to change the country.

In his address to the nation after his return from the United Kingdom, President Muhammadu Buhari said the restructuring of the country will be handled by the National Assembly. How will you react to that?

Which president are we talking about?  Is it the president who gave that speech or is it the president who embarked on consultative engagements with different stakeholders in the country the following week? Obviously, I would have preferred that we’re confronted with a president who engaged in consultations and also probably brought in more stakeholders. In a way, the presidency of any country is a critical agent for change. The Americans call it the bully pulpit syndrome. The buck stops with the president. The body language of the president can determine the outcome of an engagement. I hold the belief that President Buhari has a critical role to play in moving the nation forward in averting the oncoming tragedy and in heading the country away from collision to a cooperative destination in arriving at the kind of federalism that will be acceptable to all of us. He has a responsibility to do that.

Apart from being the president, he (Buhari) probably right now, is the only Nigerian that can ensure that we don’t end up in a ditch; in spite of what he says at times, he is the only Nigerian. Not that he stands the chance; he is the only person. Whether he will do it or not, is a different kettle of fish. Now, why do I say that? The present system that we have is skewed in favour of the North and the way forward will have to be the surrender of issues from the 1999 Constitution controlled by the Federal Government to the states.  Some issues on the exclusive list should be moved to the concurrent list and possibly, there should be a creation of the reserved list. So, it is the North that needs to make the concession. But if you’re going to be rational in your approach, the North has to be persuaded that it is not being asked to commit political or economic suicide and the only person right now that the North truly trusts and believes will not play politics with their interests is Muhammadu Buhari. He stands now in the kind of position that the (late) Sardauna stood in the sixties. An average person on the northern streets believes in Buhari in the way that they don’t believe in (former Vice President) Atiku (Abubakar) or my former boss, IBB, because those are the people who have spoken out forcefully calling for restructuring. The northern streets will conclude that these persons are playing with their interests.

But Buhari stands in that position of trust in the estimation of the northern streets that ‘if he should say that we need to give up these issues, he’s not selling us.’ What we need to do is to find people in the North that Buhari trusts – people who can discuss with him, that he believes are not setting a trap for him. The Yoruba leaders’ meeting in Ibadan and this interview will not get through to Buhari. But there are people in the North who can speak with him. There must be mutual trust between Buhari and those speaking with him.

Should Buhari reshuffle his cabinet?

For what reason or for what purpose should he reshuffle the cabinet? It appears to be the pastime of the public to want to see people disgraced and humbled. But again when you look at the people who were appointed in the first place, what was the basis for their appointment? I don’t embrace cabinet reshuffle just for reshuffling’s sake.

Buhari and the All Progressives Congress were voted into power with their promise to deal decisively with corruption in the country. Is that promise being fulfilled?

Do you believe everything a political party says? When you look at the people who fund parties – not just the present ruling party, I am talking about any of the political parties in Nigeria – where does the money come from? Look at the financiers, are they clean? Are their hands clean? Do you expect any political party to commit suicide? Until the foundation of your politics is clean, you cannot expect a clean government and you cannot expect it to get into power and go after the financiers. You can’t do that.

We want the country to be united first. We want the country to solve its problem of stability before tackling corruption. Part of the problem of dealing with corruption is that a government has to be in power first and be stable. But when you now depend on corrupt people to win your election and to remain in power, how can you deal with corruption? Is the government stable? Is Nigeria stable?

What do you think about the recent gathering of some Yoruba leaders in Ibadan to take a formal position on the restructuring of Nigeria?

What’s called the Yoruba Agenda is something that is about 20 years old. Various groups and ethnic nationalities in Nigeria have come to the conclusion, especially after the debacle of the June 12 (presidential election in 1993) that we have a system that is not working. The Yoruba agenda has been constant. The constituents of the agenda were re-confirmed at the conference held in Ibadan recently; which is regionalism and states within it and other constituent elements in terms of economic devolution. So, I am not surprised by the outcome of the meeting in Ibadan. There was the need for such a meeting because it reconfirms what the position of the Yoruba has always been. Two, it gives a ready-made answer to anyone who may want to ask: ‘What do you people want? What’s your own contribution to the debate on restructuring?’

Are you bothered that the South-West governors were not at the gathering?

What I often find funny but at the same time disruptive, is the proverb that says,  ‘we cannot all sleep and maintain the same position.’ As Wole Soyinka once said, you can come up with other proverbs that you can all sleep and maintain the same position. If you’re fighting a war, there is the need to have a unity of purpose; there must be a unified focus. Therefore, to that extent, it is worrisome that the (South-West) governors were not there. But this is an issue which has confronted the Yoruba nation from time immemorial. Several attempts have been made to address that issue unsuccessfully.

The most disastrous occurrence in the Yoruba nation was the Kiriji war which lasted for years between Ekiti Parapo and the Ibadan Alliance, (and) practically turned the Yoruba nation upside-down. If you look at the Yoruba history, either to say from then on or maybe even before then, it has always been a case of a divided nation. Even when the Action Group, headed by Baba (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo, was in power, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons gave the Action Group a run for its money electorally. We never had a situation where the Action Group won 80 or 90 per cent of the votes – it was always winning just a little over 50 per cent with the NCNC very close behind it. At times, while the AG won the regional election, in the West, the NCNC actually won the federal election. The consolation then was that such reality did not stop the Action Group under the late Chief Awolowo from recording tremendous successes in the running of the Western Region such that, to date, those achievements are still regarded as the benchmark in the development of Nigeria – because in a way, that was what led to what I would call cooperative but competitive federalism. If one region was doing something, the other region would want to do it as well. But you needed somebody with a vision to start it. So, that is the consolation whether the governors were there or not, – it will slow it down – there is nothing that will stop the march of the Yoruba nation towards having the kind of political system which its people desire.

But – I hope I will not be misunderstood because I don’t wish to be misunderstood – the Yoruba nation will not get what it wants because in a federation, whether that federation is in terms of a village community, a state community, a national community or even a global community, one constituent element never gets everything that it wants. You’ve got to negotiate with the others and hopefully, you arrive at a consensus that all of you can live with. In the 1960 Constitution, the Northern People’s Congress led by the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, didn’t get everything it wanted for the North. (Dr. Nnamdi) Azikiwe, leading the NCNC, didn’t get everything he wanted for the East. And, Chief Awolowo, leading the AG, didn’t get everything he wanted for the West. But there was sufficient consensus on critical issues that allowed them to say, ‘This is a constitution we can sell to our people and this is a constitution we can live with.’

Do you agree with the Yoruba leaders that the country should return to the 1960 and 1963 constitutions?

I do. But you need to spell out what you mean by that. We need to address our language of engagement, which is, we talk in generality. Demands are made (by all sides) in generality. So, the answers are given in generality because each side is reading its fears into the debate. When you say ‘we want to restructure’, those against restructuring are wondering, ‘what do they mean exactly?’. They want to take power away from us. They want to deny us what we’re benefitting from the system. It’s all a plot to enable them to dominate us – that’s what they mean by restructuring.’ But, if you say, by restructuring, ‘we mean political devolution and consequently, economic devolution.’ After all, you cannot transfer executive responsibilities to the states over some issues and not give them the means to carry that out.

I say this because when they (Yoruba leaders) said we need to go back to the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, what they meant was, if you look at the reserved list and the concurrent list; you look at the subjects that are on the lists that had been transferred to the federal authority, you’ve turned Nigeria from being a federal system to a unitary system. So, we want to go back; let us look at those subjects again and return what should be the ‘returnable’ to the states. Why do I say the ‘returnable’? The capacity to execute what a region had in the sixties is not the same thing as the capacity to execute by a state – the state is smaller. It’s not a question of the economic capability. So, it would have to be in an amended version. We’re talking about what the West – the Yoruba nation – wants. But keep it in mind that what you want may not be perceived as being beneficial to others who are even your allies.

Let me give you an illustration: one of the things people have found baffling is the decision reached at the 2014 National Conference. It is the resolution, calling for the creation of 54 states. Many couldn’t understand it as they argued that the current 36 states are struggling due to inadequate funds. People seem to have forgotten that in a constitutional conference – which the national conference really was – you bring to the table your own demands, a regional system and you go to others to ask them for their support. I know definitely that the Middle Belt and the South-South don’t believe in the regional system. But since those who want regional system are their allies, they can say, ‘all right, but what we want, to protect our interests as states, is the creation of more states. So, if you agree to our state creation, we’ll agree to your regional system.’ Since you cannot force your demand on them and they cannot force their demand on you, you negotiate – you bargain – and that was how that proposal (of 54 states) came about.

The Yoruba nation must understand the need to negotiate with others who have their own agenda as it pushes forward its regional government agenda. We’ve got to show cleverness, wisdom, and acumen in the negotiation that will follow to make sure that we don’t lose the core of our own demands and interests. The important thing is for us to deal with the question of domination; to ensure a system where there is no automatic domination of any group by another group. The other issue is what the European Union called the issue of subsidiarity, which is that what is best handled at the local level. They should be reserved for the local government level. That means that there are things which the local governments should be allowed to handle; same thing at the state and federal levels.

Part of the pronouncement made by the Yoruba leaders is that Nigeria will not know peace unless it is run as a federal state. Do you agree with that?

I do. We are too large and our interests are diverse, not necessarily antagonistic that it makes a lot of sense for us to give this breathing space to each constituent units of the nation and that can only be done under the system of federalism. Fortunately, federalism is such an elastic concept that we don’t need to lose sleep over the kind of federalism that is achievable for Nigeria. But one of the things that we will need to jettison in our mind is the concept of true federalism. There’s nothing called ‘true federalism’. Each federal state adopts a system that addresses the core issues which that nation needs to address. The Canadian concept of federalism is different from either the German or the American federal system. It doesn’t really matter what name it is called. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name is still a rose. Like the Americans will say, ‘It looks like a federal state. It smells like a federal state. It works like a federal state. Damn it, it is a federal state!’ What we should be seeking is a Nigerian federalism that’s unique to Nigeria (and) that allows us to live together without the fear of dominance and marginalisation. It’s those who are dominated who talk about marginalisation; it’s those that are doing the domineering that have the fear that unless they have powers in their hands, they’re going to lose out. They fear being marginalised.

The spate of crime and insecurity has continued to increase. What do you think is responsible for this?

These are hard times but the manifestations are global not just local. I doubt if there is any country in the world that says it feels safer now than it did 10 or 15 years ago because you’re dealing with phenomena that are global in nature. Trans-continental, non-governmental alliance and movements that are not under the control of a government and therefore, the kinds of constraints and restraints that normally govern inter-governmental behaviours are totally absent and Nigeria is not immune to that. Another reason is the lack of an elite consensus in our politics – it’s detrimental to national development.

Perhaps the only time we had elite consensus was between 1953 and 1963. The moment a state of emergency was declared in the South-West in 1962, it destroyed the post-independence elite consensus. It also destroyed the political values by which we maintained stability in the country. I am not saying that era was perfect; we had a system that was predictable. Predictable in the way it was run, predictable in its outcome, and predictable in the objectives by which the country was run – that was what I meant by a competitive federalism. It was destroyed in 1962 because it meant a seizure of power in the West by the Federal Government, by the North and the East. In an attempt to destroy the West, they triggered off forces that ended up destroying Nigeria itself and we have never known peace since then.

Do you think Nigeria is a failing state?

Yes, I do. I think we’re driving down the road to becoming a failed state. But I don’t think we are a failed state. There will always be contestations and some of them could be violent but they’re not sufficient to term a country a failed state, otherwise, nations like the United States of America and Spain may fall in that category. We’re in such an unstable position than we are in the 1960s.

What now is the way out of it?

It has to do with the creation of an elite consensus. Imagine if the elite can get their acts together and we run an honest political system – a political system of governance that delivers dividends. I’m not talking about dividends of democracy. I’m talking about dividends of governance where roads are properly constructed, the challenges in the educational system being effectively addressed, among others. The political gerrymandering that goes on instead of governance where bridges are built where there are no rivers or build river under the bridge.

Culled: Punch

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