We must continue to challenge the very doctrine of Nigeria’s existence – Agbakoba
Olisa Agbakoba, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), has for many years been in the vanguard of the campaign for a better Nigeria. In the days of the Jackboot, when the military actors ruled with terror and dispensed anguish to those who dared them, the Anambra-born maritime lawyer and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in league with like-minds, at the risk of their lives, spoke out and spoke up. Since the return of the country in 1998 to civil rule, Agbakoba has continued to speak, because he believes that the Nigeria of his dream is yet to be born. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, he spoke on the controversial issue of restructuring, saying that it is only Muhammadu Buhari, as an president at this time, that can take the country to the next level in this regard. He also called for a brand new constitution if Nigeria must achieve the desired unity. He also spoke on other issues. Excerpts:
For some time now, the issue of restructuring has dominated the political space. There’s so much controversy about the subject. What is your own understanding of restructuring?
The first problem is that there is no common defining nature of what is on the table. I think restructuring is bigger than political restructuring. If you restructure Nigeria in the narrow sense, the danger is transferring from the centre (Federal Government) to the regions or to the states the inefficiency that exists in the system today. You can’t restructure unless you begin to dismantle big government. Big government must go. I make it clear that it is not possible to continue with 80 percent of our resources consumed by 3 percent of the population, mostly civil servants. It just can’t work. So, if you do not deal with this problem beforehand and take it to the regions or to the states, then the same problem will persist. Government business for me is essentially three- Let us take power; you see government officials moving around the whole place trying to light up Nigeria without success, and the reason is that they are not doing what they should be doing; they have got no business playing the operational side of power, that’s the role of the private sector. The minister’s role is to make the policy, execute it and regulate it; then this will unleash a tremendous amount of private sector energy of the kind we have never seen. When that begins to happen, the infrastructure gets fixed because the private sector participation will put the money down; everyday you hear government talk about billions, billions, billions yet nothing is happening. Those of us from Apapa, we know the problems. So, there are certain very fundamental things that must be done for restructuring to work, and that’s why it is important that we widen the scope of the debate and bring on board some of these essential points that I am making. If that happens, I think we shall begin to see a shift- that is if there is give and take (there must be give and take); for instance, on fiscal federalism I got about two or three suggestions, which if we don’t take into account will result in the kind of challenges we saw at the 2014 National Conference. One way to assuage all Nigerians about fiscal federalism is for the Federal Government to declare whether it intends to keep hydrocarbons (oil & gas) which is offshore (in the waters) to itself and allow the states or the regions to take the one onshore. If that is put on the table as a debate, then we can have a debate about it. But I prefer to have a situation in which there is complete devolution of resources to the states or regions. I keep saying states or regions because nobody is sure what will constitute the federating units which is exactly the issue which the debate about restructuring will take into account. Will it be six, eight, 36? There’s such a huge confusion about what it should be. The composition of Nigeria is in the following way. The North is used to big government and slow to accept transformational business-led reform; the south is used to enterprise and is ready to accommodate shrinking of government. How now do you marry the two contesting philosophies? First, if you don’t put it on the table for discussion, and second, if you don’t make an agreement, then we are going to carry on like this. It is very important that if you are discussing restructuring you must bring everybody on board.
As media people whenever you attend these press conferences by Ohanaeze and Afenifere on restructuring, ask them, what do you actually mean by restructuring? They have narrowed it down to creation of new states. They have narrowed it so terribly to mean ‘what we want now is let us go back to 1963 Constitution’, but exactly what does that mean? Are you going back to 1963 constitution with large bureaucracy? It does not work. I remember when I was president of the Nigerian Bar Association and we had an international speaker who came out to say ‘don’t assume that a new constitution will change Nigeria’, and that’s what is happening now. We must not assume that a restructured Nigeria will mean a changed Nigeria.
A restructured Nigeria could actually be a worse Nigeria, a more fragile Nigeria, which is the fear that the president has. It is better to have a Nigeria, maybe like this, but stronger united. Unfortunately, the IPOB matter has not helped us. It has not helped. It is a massive and unfortunate distraction; because people now say ‘I hope to structure Nigeria does not mean breaking Nigeria?’ So, in discussing restructuring we have to contend with another big issue. Is it really true that Nigeria’s sovereignty is unquestioned? I don’t think so. Nigeria’s sovereignty is not unquestioned. It has to be questioned. It is the only way you can really begin to address the concerns of each group. We agree that since we come together in 1914 we have never really had a conversation about the way we want to live.
So, if we hadn’t, why could anybody tell me that Nigeria’s sovereignty is not in question? The president has said so; the vice president repeated the same thing when he was acting president. But that is false. It is not correct. We must accept that restructuring cannot occur successfully except we challenge the very doctrine of Nigeria’s existence.
And it is unfortunate that the Federal Government mishandled the Nnamdi Kanu thing. There’s no big issue in self-determination; it is a principle that is acceptable in international law; it is a principle in United Nations Charter. What Nnamdi Kanu is doing wrong is not following due process. It is like forcing the issue; that’s he cannot do. On the other hand you cannot use a sledge hammer, like the Operation Python Dance thing to knock him dead. All of this has made a seemingly simple issue highly complicated. My point is, unless we address big issue, unless we talk about it, we will just be pretending. The truth is that Nigeria is a highly split and divided nation. Very highly. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t see any of these leaders driving what we want.
I should expect the southern leaders to go to the north and be talking to them about this restructuring and the form they think it should take rather than talking to themselves because among themselves they have agreed already; they should be travelling to the north where they should have a conversation about how to persuade the northern leaders on how to accept this new Nigeria. Without that, I assure you that nothing will come out of it. If you ask me, it is better for Nigeria to have about three viable countries than a sick one in which we allow hypocrisy and pretence to thrive. Look at Anambra State. It is clear that the Anambra State political mess is a microcosm of Nigeria’s larger problem. Peter Obi is there; he wants to control the state, but he brought up Obiano.
So, if the Peter Obi phenomenon is repeated across Nigeria, all I hear or see is about personal power, people don’t want to give up power. It is personal power versus national development. Right now, personal power is overwhelming. So, our job as usual is to talk about lt. there’s nothing else we can do.
You said the President is the one who should drive the process of restructuring; and it appears he is not interested in doing so. Now, everybody is talking about restructuring and it seems nobody has frontally told the President that he should do what he is supposed to do in this regard. Can’t you now, pointedly, tell him to do so?
That’s what I am saying; if I didn’t say it that way, but that’s what I am saying. Let me say it now. I, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, advise the President that as the chief executive officer of Nigeria, pursuant to the provisions of Section 5 of the Constitution, it is for him to drive the process. It’s for him to provide leadership in all spheres of Nigeria’s activities; including present political mess that we are in and give us a new constitution that will unite us as Nigerians.’
You said that the southern leaders should go to the north and engage the leaders there on discussion around restructuring; do you think such an approach can have any effect if the government has not determined to do anything meaningful in that regard?
The reason why I used that example is like what we did in civil society days; we didn’t have any gun but we put pressure on the system because there was a civil society movement. If we can have clear voice, a pan-Nigerian voice, they would put pressure, but that doesn’t exist.
If there were, the President would be forced to take action. That’s the context in which I used that illustration. The Afenifere, Ohanaeze and religious leaders have been hypocritical. If Nigerians could decide to hold meaningful debate, then the President could be forced to take some actions. But if the Nigerians who expect the President to do something are on themselves not on the same page, they would end up playing into his hands.
You have been speaking on national issues for a very long time. NADECO, Afenifere , Ohanaeze and so many other groups and individuals have been speaking and writing, yet rather than improving, Nigeria’s situation is getting worse by the day. Do you really see any light at the end of this long tunnel?
To be sincere with you, I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. It is going to be a very tough fight which is why we have to be very careful how we organise it. So, voices like mine add to it, but the more crucial voices are the voices of the ethnic nationalities. Don’t forget that Nigeria is made up of ethnic nationalities. Nigeria is not made up of professionals, we are part of civil society and we have a role to play. But the critical stakeholders are the ones I referred to; they are the ones if they had been organised and had produced a blue print and force in the hands of government, things would have been better. The other problem is our pre-pendal politicians of whatever tribe; of whatever language and of whatever religion. Once it comes to politics, they have a common unity. The Chairman of PDP when Peter Obi was in APGA, Ulasi, is now supporting Obiano. He’s gone the other way round. And that’s politics. It is clear there’s struggling over who controls power in the state. So, that poses another challenge. It is distracting them. The ones speaking about these issues today can decide to be disgruntled politicians; immediately they get power, they forget all about it. In all honesty, we will speak about this for a long time and nothing will happen and there will be no change because we do not have a unified position.
The President delegated the National Assembly to look into the issue of restructuring. The constitution allows him to delegate, is anything wrong with that?
It is just a crucial issue you don’t delegate to the National Assembly. It is too crucial. The people that he needs to speak with are Nigerians; not National Assembly. It is above the National Assembly. The National Assembly can amend the constitution; but clearly what we need is a new constitution. He must be the one to set the matter. The National Assembly itself is embroiled in its own politics. They have the National Confab report for three years or four nothing has happened. So, if you want to do something fresh and the President is sincere about change, it must be at his table, not National Assembly; not National Council of State.
Some of you were vibrant in those days in the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) but it appears the whole thing is dead. What really happened?
It is not dead. The goal post has shifted. Civil society issues over human rights, democracy rights, prison rights, etc are different from ethnic issues. In fact, there was a serious issue over who should constitute membership of the National Conference. Chief Enahoro believed very strongly that the stakeholders of Nigeria are not lawyers, doctors, journalists, but Igbo, Efik, Ijaw Hausa, Nupe, Yoruba, etc. – those are the people who own Nigeria. I can’t speak for Nigeria. The problem is that these ethnic nationalities are not speaking with one voice and that is the challenge. If they speak with one voice they will mobilise and galvanise Nigerians.
Is it not possible for these Nigerians you mentioned insist that the report of the 2014 National Conference be revisited and implemented?
I can make the call but, where will it go? Those can make the call and give it muscle are the ethnic nationalities; they are the ones who can make it work. I was a member of the National Conference and everything under the sun was discussed and I think it’s a good point of engagement. But right now, as I told you, you can see that there are challenges.
There’s difference of ideas and opinions on the way forward between the south and the north. The President has no interest; so, the only actors – not civil society actors – the only actors that can change things will be the southern and northern actors.
You keep talking about engagement, when you have noted there are different ideas, interest and opinions; how do you think southern leaders can successfully engage their northern counterparts?
You find a common determinator. First of all, remember I said there’s nothing that is sacrosanct about our unity. They have to accept it. If you don’t accept it there’s no way we can work together, we cannot pretend about it. But we are now pretending by saying ‘united Nigerians’. There’s no nation called a united Nigeria. Nigeria is a conglomerate of various ethnic nationalities. If that is accepted, the question will arise- can we couple Nigeria together, how? What are the issues that unite us? Which is where this loose federation becomes important. Those things that are internal- suppose we accept to go regional? Suppose we have two more regions, we add Midwest and Middle Belt and it became eight.
People don’t tend to agree because they have other agenda. And the leaders who should understand what I am saying don’t understand it. That’s the problem,
What is your take on the proscription of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)?
IPOB was mishandled by the Federal Government. The IPOB thing has two sides – it has a legal side and a political side. On the legal side, the Federal Government mishandled it because there were three proscriptions. First, by the South East governors which they have no power to do; this is because the Act that established it, listed the methods. Second, by the President and he has no power to do so. Then third was the proscription by the court which is the proper arena, but I have a problem with that, although I don’t like criticising judgments.
But my problem with the court judgment was that the judge decided finally what was brought to him on an interim process. So, there was a motion brought to him, the case was about proscription, the IPOB people were not served. So, if you grant a final order, proscribing, when you serve them to come to court, what would happen? So, I think the judge was in error. That’s on the legal side. On the political side I think Nnamdi Kanu has misused a legitimate opportunity that the law offers because the United Nation Charter allows precisely for referendum to be conducted to determine where people want to go which was why I said it is not by force to remain in Nigeria if I don’t want to be. You can’t force people to remain in Nigeria. If I want to be a Biafran I must do so within t he context of the law. For instance, what tells Nnamdi Kanu that I want to be a Biafran because I am an Igbo man?
I don’t want to be, because I prefer to be in a larger country called Nigeria. But Nigeria itself must be fair to me because the issue about IPOB is because of the marginalisation and final exclusion of the South East. That’s not in doubt. Look at the NNPC Board appointment, not even a single person from the south east was appointed. So, no Igbo person, including myself, who would not feel bad about what is going on, but it doesn’t mean that I will now follow Nnamdi Kanu into hell, when he is doing the wrong things. Unfortunately, at the time Professor Nwabueze had gotten a commitment and extraction from Nnamdi Kanu to leave the issue of the secession and go to the issue of restructuring they now brought Operation Python Dance. So everybody has been crazy.
President Buhari has been livid, concerned and worried that this thing is getting out of hand, but it should have been done in a better way and that’s why I think there’s a mistake. The only person that can resolve these issues is the president. He must take charge. Everybody knows that Nigeria is in pieces; and everybody knows that it will take the greatest skill on the part of the president to bring Nigerians together. It will take another skill for those ethnic nationalities that I have been talking about to understand how to approach and come to some agreement. I am happy that people like El-Rufai are beginning to loosen up on these issues. If we can find a common ground, all those things that unite us will be at the centre. Those ones that do not unite us should stay at the regions. I am from Anambra. In 1978, in other for NPN to lure the south east to vote for them (NPN) they pretend to build a Port. Since building that port no single ship has come there. Every time, they re-award contract. Now, what is the business of the Federal Ministry of Transport controlling a port that is inside Anambra State? No business.
But you can release that energy so that the governor of Anambra State can use it to create wealth. There’s what we call ‘Water Economy”. The Federal Government is not interested. Again, since I was in secondary school in 1972, the Onitsha-Enugu Highway has never been completed. Now, what is the business of Federal Government running a road inside Anambra State? Look at all the roads in Lagos State. The Federal Government is fighting the state government over the roads that are inside the state. What is the business of Federal Government here? So, you can begin to see that it is not too difficult if we have people who would want to be reasonable; who would want to open Nigeria up. When we became centrifugal, with power at the centre, with all the powers in Abuja, it becomes a serious problem, there’s no growth. The governors do nothing but go to FAAC at the end of the month, collect a cheque, put it into their account, distribute and that’s the end of their job. So, we need to open Nigeria. The other way we can do it is for us to have a President, not National Assembly, a president ready to push this process, otherwise, I am very sorry we will remain like this for the next 30, 40, 50 years.
I followed your exchanges with General Olusegun Obasanjo on the letter you wrote to him and his response on generational shift in the leadership of this country. He advised you to kick-start the process. The question now is, what have you done and what are you doing in that regard. Are you planning to sponsor some youths into elective positions?
Yes, this is a very good question. In 1998, when the human rights community was at its zenith, we were deciding what do we do? Do we enter the fray or should we not? We were at a large meeting in Gani’s house. Regrettably, the house came to a decision that we shouldn’t join politics. Those of you who are Christians could remember the Bible account when the Red Sea parted for the children of Israel to walk through and it closed back and swallowed the enemies pursuing them. There’s no way the Israelis would have crossed because of the major obstacle and Pharaoh chasing them. 1998 was the year the Red Sea parted for Nigeria; and all these political obstacles and political charlatans were not there, it was opened for good people to cross it, by 2003 it closed. Now, when I met Obasanjo, I said to him ‘thanks for the reply, but you know that to take part in politics today requires all kinds of resources. And there’s no way the Red Sea will part or there’s no way you‘ll expect me to succeed unless you play the role of the parting the Red Sea’. So, that’s the point where the discussion is at the moment. Let me be honest with you, there’s no way a young man can become Nigeria’s president, if the obstacles on ground do not shift. Obasanjo has the capacity, in collaboration with his political generation, because at their age now, what they want to see is bequeathing a legacy of a strong Nigeria. So, if we see him playing the role of parting the Red Sea, people like us will cross it. Obasanjo cannot do that alone; love him or hate him; Obasanjo is a major national force and has the capacity to do a lot of things. So, I will hope that the discussion will now advance to the next level.
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