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If we do not give Nigeria a rebirth before 2023 my prediction is that there will be no country, says Attah

By Ayoyinka Jegede
14 October 2019   |   3:03 am
In this revealing interview with AYOYINKA JEGEDE in Uyo, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah, speaks on how to achieve the rebirth Nigerians desperately yearn for through true federalism founded on resource control, spearheaded by the National Assembly

[FILE PHOTO] Obong Victor Bassey Attah, former governor of Akwa-Ibom State

In this revealing interview with AYOYINKA JEGEDE in Uyo, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah, speaks on how to achieve the rebirth Nigerians desperately yearn for through true federalism founded on resource control, spearheaded by the National Assembly, along the current 36-state structure without which those angling for 2023 presidency may just be chasing after shadows. Excerpts:

The clamour is on for a particular region to produce the president in 2023. Which region do you think should produce the president in 2023?
Why do you think there will be a president in 2023 when there will be no country? Unless we go back to (true) federalism, there will be no country. All these agitations for breakup will come to be unless we, first of all, establish the fact that we want a country based on true federalism. Then when we do we can look at the type of government that is best suited for us. It may not be a presidential system. In my lecture recently I prescribed a parliamentary system of government and I was adamant due to some reasons.

Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) the other day said if they tell us what they found out about constituency projects we’ll be shocked. There is so much going wrong in this system, but in a parliamentary system that would not happen. In that lecture, I described the Federal Executive Council, the House of Representatives and the Senate, as ‘Conglomerate’ that often do not find common ground. We have a padding of budget; we have constituency projects and all the evil things that are plaguing us. If we go back to the parliamentary system, we won’t have any of that and we have people who can’t even win elections being made ministers occupying positions; that doesn’t happen in a parliamentary system of government. We need to go back to the parliamentary system of government.

So, by the time you are asking me, ‘which region should produce the president in 2023’, why do you think there will be a president? First, there must be a country. Two, we must decide and agree whether we want a parliamentary system of government or we want to continue with the presidential system before anybody can clamour for anything.

Corruption has been a cankerworm in Nigeria. What’s the solution to it?
That’s what I’m talking about. If you have people that are supposed to come and protect you but are collecting bribe and turn their back at people, who want to come and kill you and say they were not there at that time, then what are we talking about?

The solution to corruption in this country is to restructure Nigeria, give Nigeria a rebirth. Who will come and steal my resources and money when I need it to develop myself? But when somebody is collecting it somewhere and even the ones he/she has collected is not coming back to me because somebody has put it in his bank account, or gorilla or snake has eaten it, do you think I will allow it?

Some argue that Nigeria’s problem is bad leadership. What’s your opinion on that?
Bad leadership yes, borne out of a system that breeds bad leadership. It is this presidential system that’s breeding bad leadership. If we go to the parliamentary system of government we shall have good leadership. If we restructure and give Nigeria a rebirth immediately, automatically good governance and good leaders will emerge.

Herders killings and kidnapping: what’s the way out?
Some people have decided that it is the Fulani that is killing. Even if you have decided that, why would the Fulani want to kill you? Why didn’t the Fulani kill us before when we had a federal system? Is it only herdsmen that are killing? And did we not always have herders? Why were they not killed before? It is because we have a system that’s not just working for anybody: it doesn’t work for the herders, farmers or anybody. Have you also heard of farmers killing herdsmen or killing their cows? The whole system is wrong. Nigeria today is wrong and until we give Nigeria a rebirth, we are wasting time. If we do not give Nigeria a rebirth before 2013, my prediction is that there will be no country before 2023 because the killings will get out of hand; Boko Haram will get out of hands. All the people that want to split Nigeria would have succeeded with their own justification, but it won’t happen because we would know that we need to give Nigeria a rebirth and we would. Nobody wants the country to break up and that rebirth would come.

How can this rebirth be realised for sustainable development?
The National Assembly has a large role to play more than the president. We all need to work together to move the nation forward irrespective of political affiliation. The answer lies in our ability to carry everybody along and we have to start by engaging the National Assembly.

In a very recent interview, the respected Senator Jonathan Zwingina had this to say, ‘I would like to call on Nigerians, especially our older elites, who feel that restructuring is a presidential affair to have a rethink. It is not a presidential affair. If the necessary cooperation is there, the National Assembly can achieve it. They can create the kind of balanced federation that we are looking for.’ 

Prior to that, the President of the 8th Senate had said that members of the National Assembly are crucial to the call for restructuring. In fact, he insisted that no restructuring could happen without the National Assembly. I could not agree more. I also agree wholeheartedly with the Rt. Hon. Speaker of the 8th House of Representatives who said that as elected representatives of the people, they were bound to fulfill the wishes of those who elected them. To do otherwise would be to create a situation in which the servant is greater than the master or the tail wagging the dog.

At a recent event in Lagos, I listened to the President of the 9th Senate, Senator Ahmed Lawan, and I heard him say that ‘No country has ever developed without trust among its citizens’ He went on to affirm from a popular line in our abandoned national anthem that ‘Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we must continue to stand’. This trust, this brotherhood which we have and lost, this new beginning which we so fervently desire, can only be realised through Rebirth. It is therefore my fervent hope, and I am sure I express the hope of everyone who wishes this country well that the 9th National Assembly will stand with the people, seize the moment and rise to such height of patriotism as will not only facilitate but expedite the attainment of this rebirth.

Since it is the wishes of the people to have a rebirth, I strongly urge the National Assembly to quickly make a law to convoke a national dialogue. The law should spell out who should attend, the method of election/selection of the conference delegates, the time frame, and manner of conduct of deliberations. Such a law would guarantee the legitimacy of the conference. With that, further attempts to amend the present constitution should cease. When the conference has concluded its deliberations, its findings, any alterations must be subjected to a national referendum the outcome of which will give Nigeria a new constitution made by Nigerians for Nigeria. Such a constitution is what is needed to give Nigeria a new birth. The function of the National Assembly at that stage will be to repeal the decree that had brought the 1999 constitution into existence and make a new law that will promulgate this new constitution as the supreme law of the land. That way, sovereignty would have been bestowed without any conflict or dispute about roles. Attempts to panel beat the 1999 constitution have so far failed and will continue to fail. The compelling need for a new constitution is, therefore, something that is acknowledged by all of us in this country.

The imperatives for such a new constitution were given by the then President of the Nigerian Bar Association when, on August 2013 he said, ‘The constitution as it currently operates does not reflect the people’s yearnings and aspirations. Ordinary amendments to its provisions may not necessarily cure the fundamental flaws in it. There is, therefore, a dire need for a people-oriented constitution which will be subjected to a national referendum and will be self-enforcing’.

To this, I should add something that I had said earlier, ‘Nigeria must fashion out its own version of perestroika or perish!’

The cry now and the acknowledged panacea for this rebirth is diversification, but that demands hard work and creativity. Which governor will agree to diversify so long as, at the end of every month, he can go to Abuja to collect his share of the oil booty? The only reason a governor would diversify is if he knows that the sustenance and the development of his state depend on it. We have such vast areas of fertile land but we have refused to revive our agriculture. We have allowed our tourism facilities to decay and another potential to remain moribund. Governors of states with vast solid mineral deposits are not interested in their exploitation or, if indeed they were, they couldn’t because the law says such minerals belong exclusively to the Federal Government. Governors of oil-producing states cannot stop the oil theft because they do not have state police and, in any case, the Federal Government has appropriated everything. Occasionally, we hear the news that the money so appropriated has been swallowed up somewhere else by gorillas and snakes or has disappeared into private bank accounts. The incentive to produce has effectively been killed, hence the need for a rebirth.

If we produce, we persuade ourselves to be content with what we are able to produce, but sharing brings out the worst in us because we always go home with a feeling of having been cheated, a feeling that we should have got more. So today we quarrel, we fight, we indulge in all sorts of destructive contrivances because we want to devise ways of getting more from the federal purse. We fail to realise that all we are doing is sharing poverty and that is the reason for our lack of development. We bicker over our population figures; we fight over the number of states in our zones; we quarrel over the number of local governments in our states – quarrels and disagreements that highlight our differences and cause unnecessary tensions and mistrust, but indeed quarrels that will not abate but rather escalate so long as we continue this anti-federal system of sharing rather than generating money.

In the process we ignore the education of our children, the health of our citizens; we close our eyes to the decay and inadequacy of our essential infrastructure, the states and local governments fail in their functions and duties and are content to blame everything on the Federal Government, and when the tension gets too high or the situation becomes intolerable, we threaten secession. And yet the answer is simple – namely, the practice of true federalism with appropriate devolution of power and resource control.

Those who accuse us in the Niger Delta of preaching resource control, because we want to keep all the oil to ourselves or, to be more absurd, that we want to secede know that they are just being mischievous because nothing is further from the truth than that.

In fact, the contrary is the position. The recklessness with which the gas is flared, the aggressiveness with which the oil is being exploited, the reticence towards the exploitation of other revenue sources, the refusal to clean up the polluted environment resulting from oil and gas activities leave us in the Niger Delta with the palpable and justifiable fear that these wasting assets are being exploited to our disadvantage and that after the place has been raped, despoiled and devastated, we will be abandoned with nothing to show but lamentations for our participation in the union. We have often asked for assurances that this will not be the case, but no such assurance has ever been given. It is issues like this, which can instantly be cured with true federalism that has continued to provoke and heighten the risk of unsavoury action from the creeks. We must accept that the issue of resource control will not go away. It is something that we must return to because it is the cornerstone upon which true federalism is erected.

Indeed, Nigeria is ready for true federalism and since it is something that we have had before, I suggest that we drop the word RESTRUCTURING and adopt NATIONAL REBIRTH. This and only this can lead to SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT. How we ever sunk into such depth of imbecility as to think that a single commodity – oil – could feed and develop this vast country is something that I can never fathom. Having deceived ourselves to believe that it could, we should have realised that any such development could not be sustained because oil is a wasting asset. Not only would it dry up sooner than we think, but its use is also being curtailed to ameliorate the devastating effects of global warming and climate change. Soon, therefore, it will change from a wasting asset to a worthless asset.

Fifty-nine years after independence, why have we not developed?
Because we have derailed. We completely derailed; people want to talk about military intervention, but I don’t want to talk about military intervention. I want to talk about derailment. We all came together as a people and agreed together that we will build our country on true federalism; everybody agreed and the principles that govern true federalism are well known to all of us.

A good measure of autonomy to the federating units and, as I put in a lecture recently, all three regions at a time came together, had their own individual constitutions; they had their representatives in London and they paid different minimum wages in the various regions. It was autonomy; everybody developed at their own pace with their own resources but, unfortunately, the military had to be impatient, came in and rather than allowing that development to consolidate, the military took over and everybody knows that the military know only one type of government, because they have only one line of command, which is the ‘Unitary’ system of government. But look at how long the military has left the scene; we have thrown off all other vestiges of the military, but we kept the ‘Unitary’ system of sharing money. That’s why we have not developed and that is why we are having all the problems we have such as unemployment, delinquencies, cultism, banditry, to mention a few. All these derive from the fact that we have refused to develop. If we are developing and people are finding gainful employment, useful occupation for themselves, nobody will go into all those criminal things. That derailment from a ‘true federal’ to a ‘unitary’ system is the cause of our issues today.

The solution is to go back to true federalism. There must be a rebirth.

What are the institutions you think we need to strengthen to give us a rebirth?
Let me ask you a question: would you have thought that a country with the army will be talking of strengthening the army? But today we see an Army General being commercial, apparently stealing money of the military. We see the military being accused of killing policemen who try to stop somebody that is supposed to be a villain, because some people in the military were benefitting from supplying him arms to do all sorts of things. Which institution do you want to strengthen again? There should be certain institutions we need to take for granted that are good and stable and therefore we should say, ‘we need to start all over again.’ That’s why I am talking about rebirth.

But restructuring has been loudest demand in the public space and sometimes used interchangeably with true federalism…

If I am correct, in the assertion that Nigeria’s harmonious existence was predicated on the hallowed principle of democratic, fiscal federalism and that all the ills which we suffer today are rooted in the unitary system which we practice now, then there is no wonder that the public space has been so flooded with rhetoric on restructuring. Most regrettably, the rhetoric on this topic has degenerated into a cacophony all because its most strident advocates have continued to present divergent perspectives and perceptions of the subject, particularly on the issue of what should constitute the federating units.

At independence, the three mega blocks – the Northern, Western and Eastern regions – were the federating units. But there was internal friction. The ethnic minorities in the various regions had mounted vigorous agitation for regions or states of their own. The best known of these was the Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers State movement, popularly called the COR state movement. These agitations started during colonial rule and led to a number of commissions to finding a solution to the problem of the minorities. Interestingly, the only such region to be created was the Mid-West, later on, called Bendel State out of Western Region, covering the area which today constitutes Edo and Delta states. The agitation continued with greater vehemence and today we have a total of 36 states and a Federal Capital Territory, with continuing agitation for even more states.

It is this that has given scope for the formulation of various perspectives and perceptions on the issue of federating units. There are those who insist that the states, some of them at least, cannot function as federating units. A further argument is that far too much money is being spent to administer 36 state governments in addition to the Federal Government. They, therefore, advocate various configurations that they believe would not only cut costs but would also result in what they claim would be larger and therefore viable federating units. I disagree. I believe that even the smallest and the least endowed of the states that we have today has enough resources, enough manpower and all it takes to be viable within a larger federation.

In this matter of size or resources, I am convinced that the cassock does not make the Bishop. It is more a matter of leadership and ingenuity. I further believe that any attempt to merge or whittle down the autonomy that the states enjoy today would fail. The call for new geographic entities that would combine states or impose a new superstructure on any group of states, in my opinion, is uncalled for and does not add value to the debate on true federalism.

Any governor today who wants to say that he cannot develop his state with the resources available to him is merely confessing that he is unfit to be a governor. As I have said, in those evil days of (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo’s onshore-offshore dichotomy, I was given a mere N600 million every month with which to develop this state, which then was classified as a non-oil producer.

Despite this, I was able to build an airport which, thanks to His Excellency Gov. Udom Emmanuel, is today named after me, an airport with Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility with the best runway in the country. I built an Independent Power Plant (IPP) of 191megawatt capacity. I built the Le-Meridien Hotel with a marina and an acclaimed golf course which today is considered a tourist delight and the place of choice for conferences, retreats and business meetings. I built housing estates, hospitals, schools; I built roads; I gave people pipe-borne water and rural electrification. I started a unique University of Technology and an Information Communication Technology (ICT) Park with a major incubation centre. I initiated the design for a deep sea port at Ibaka in addition to establishing new and rehabilitating a number of moribund industries.

In the process, I took Akwa Ibom State firmly into the Nigerian federation where its voice was heard and respected and I projected the state positively to the world. I set enviable standards of development and above all, I made Akwa Ibom State into a peaceful haven in the turbulent Niger Delta.

I can think of a good number of things that can stop a state from effectively functioning as a federating unit, but certainly, size or lack of resources would not be included. The truth is that the resource does not have to be located in your state for you to benefit from it.

In the 1980s, Kaduna State where I lived, invested profitably in Calabar Veneer and Plywood Company (Calvenply), a company based in Calabar that exploited the rich forest endowments of Cross River State. Similarly, at the turn of the century, Akwa Ibom State Government invested in the novel Global System of Mobile telephone company, ECONET and reaped bountifully. Nobody can say that it is only Ogun State that will benefit from the mega oil and petrochemical complex that Dangote Group is putting up today in that state. All we have to do is to think outside the box, use our imagination and ingenuity with a determination that, whatever the odds, the state must survive, must develop and progress.

Those seeking to form regions in whatever combination of states should bear in mind that the states we have today are the closest thing to the wishes of the people. Though created by the military, they came as a result of vigorous campaigns by the people with convincing evidence of their viability. Remembering that all the states were created from larger formations to solve various problems, particularly the problem of internal conflicts, any attempt to recombine them should first make certain that those conflicts no longer exist. There will still remain the big question of the mechanism by which such regions will be formed. Another major argument that is sometimes put forward in support of regionalisation is the reduction in the cost of administration.

For instance, the entire Northern Region at independence had only one regional government in Kaduna; today we have 19 very expensive state governments. On the surface, this concept of cash-saving appears very plausible but, in my opinion, is fallacious. While it is true that the cost of governance has become astronomically high, I do not attribute this merely to the number of state governments that we have, but rather to the unbridled, extravagant consumerism of the various governments. Besides we should not lose sight of the fact that any attempt to recombine even two states would result in throwing an unthinkable number of civil and other public servants of all grades into the pool of jobless people. That would be an unmitigated disaster.

There are those who do not want to abolish the states but want to create federal regions under which there would be a number of states. For me, the concept is so woolly that I find it difficult to comprehend and therefore unable to effectively comment on. Already, we are complaining about cost so I see no purpose in creating yet another administrative super-structure. Is it the federal regions that will then be considered as the federating units? If so, what will be the status of the states? Who will control and administer their resources? What will be the fate of the local governments? Sometimes, I fear that this may be a veiled attempt to break up the country by recreating those mega blocks any one of which can successfully threaten our corporate existence.

Those who genuinely believe that regions would make better federating units than states must show us how such regions would be formed to attain legal, or should I say, constitutional status? They must also clearly define the new federal structure given that we would be dealing with four levels of governance – federal, region, state and local government. I am just afraid that however well-intentioned they may be, and however strongly they may wish, like the rest of us, to see the country restructured, the regionalists may just end up delaying the process or infact, creating a stumbling block.

In this I have a strong ally in the esteemed personage of Alhaji Balarabe Musa, popularly known as the voice of the people, who, in a recent interview said:
‘True federalism and restructuring are different things entirely. Those who talk about true federalism, in reality, are talking of true federal system of government where power is shared between the centre and the states and various units. Those who are calling for true federalism are honest, but the issue is the problem of the regions’

I urge the regionalists to please drop the idea, accept the states as they exist today as the federating units and let us move on. If any cluster of states should choose to come together for economic reasons, or reasons of shared facilities or any other reason of commonality, they could, of course, do so following the example of  Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN) initiated by the six governors of the South West.

The fact that those states, at some point, were governed by governors from different political parties did not hinder their cooperation. There is also the Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Delta (BRACED) Commission in the South-South. I know that the South East is working on a similar thing southeast Nigeria Economic Commission ((SENEC). There was always New Nigeria Development Corporation (NNDC), which was formed to encompass the entire North, but whose assets have since been shared.

Recently, the governor of Kaduna state bemoaned the fact that Nigeria consists of two countries – a backward north and developing south. There is no doubt in my mind that, if NNDC could be revitalised along with resource control and the financial support of the Bank of the North, now Unity Bank, which they own, all that could be reversed. Better still, NNDC could re-emerge, not as one but three development commissions for the three zones in the north. This, for me, is a much superior option in every respect to the formation of formal regional entities as federating units.

Fortunately, the cacophony ends there and the good news is that there is a general agreement that the only real meaning that we can give to restructuring is the reordering of the polity by way of resource control and devolution of power to reflect true fiscal federalism.

In other words, we need to go back to the ideals of our founding fathers, which stand in direct antithesis to the unitary form of government that the military introduced and we are practicing now. Restructuring must not, therefore, be seen as a demand for a previously unknown Nigeria. What is being demanded is a return to a Nigeria that we have had before, a Nigeria that worked for human progress and development.