National Assembly is vital to constitution review, says Osoba
Chief Segun Osoba, a former governor of Ogun State and founding member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), spoke with SEYE OLUMIDE and YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO about the ongoing efforts to review the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the need for restructuring.
Is there any certainty Nigeria would be restructured?
WE will get there very soon. The confusion we are having at the moment is based on the misconception about restructuring and lack of explanations in what it is. If only we can be more explicit to Nigerians what restructuring is all about and how we hope to achieve it and its benefits to the country, then we will get it done.
What we mean by restructuring is true and genuine federalism as a political system of governance. If we explain to the people what we have in mind, for instance, looking at the Canadian Constitution or the arrangement in Australia, where the regions are the federating unit.
The differences among our ethnic nationalities are not different or less complex than what is in Canada. There are French and English-speaking Canadians and they are two different people, with separate cultural backgrounds, yet they are running the country successfully because each of the regions has reasonable autonomy and their Federal Government is running the country.
But here, we are not even doing enough to explain restructuring to those who believe in rearranging the system of government. A lot of people are confused and they are asking what restructuring is all about, including the highly educated Nigerians from the South.
What then is the solution?
First, we must change our approach. The idea of people insisting we must convoke a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) immediately may not work. The way a layman will understand the issue of a sovereign national conference is different from how a practising politician will look at it.
Some people are saying that President Muhammadu Buhari must convoke a sovereign national conference. I am not a lawyer, but there is nowhere in the 1999 Constitution that the President is empowered to convoke a sovereign national conference. Buhari has no such power whatsoever to convoke a sovereign national conference.
As of today, legislative power is vested in the National Assembly and in the State Assemblies. I have said it in many interviews that as imperfect as the 1999 Constitution is, which is a military induced document, whatever we are going to do must be in cognisance and provision of that imperfect constitution.
So, there is no way we can convoke a sovereign national conference without a Bill to the National Assembly for it to cede the authority vested in it by the current constitution to that sovereign body. This is necessary because of the word sovereign, which means whatever is agreed at that conference becomes the constitution and the new system of governance in the country.
I agree, but I still insist, that the route towards the SNC must be through the National Assembly. Have we done anything to persuade the lawmakers to buy into our point of view?
Second, what makes us think that our position in the Southwest, which is asking for true federalism and perhaps to pre-independence, would be the same position as those from other parts of the country? Have we realised that there are many ethnic groups in the northern part of Nigeria than we think.
For example, some people are still thinking the entire north is a more united family, in terms of ethnic groups, but they are wrong. There are many sub-ethnic groups within the north than the Southwest and Southeast, which are the two most homogenous zones. The Southwest is purely Yoruba, while the Southeast is purely Igbo.
Even the South-South doesn’t have anything in common. The language in Bayelsa is not the same as the one in Akwa Ibom, whereas, in Rivers, there are many sub-ethnic groups. In Delta, the Urhobo may be the dominant group, but they are not the only group, as we still have Itsekiri and many other sub-ethnic groups.
In Edo, the Bini may be the majority, but there are so many other sub-ethnic groups within the state. So, in the South-South zone, what is the unifying theme? Are their cultures, language the same? We were not reckoning with some of the problems we even have in the south and what have we done to educate a lot of people in the Middle Belt?
Many of the people in the Northeast don’t even want to talk about Hausa. I have a friend that I used to stay in New York, the United States (US). The first language in his house is Kanuri and he refused to allow his children to learn Hausa. It was then I started seeing that the preservation of culture in many parts of the north is so strong and yet, we are not talking to these sub-ethnic groups.
That is the problem I have with our people, who are clamouring for SNC and when you give all these authentic views, they label you as a turncoat.
But part of their argument against your position that the composition of this National Assembly has more lawmakers from the North, who are perceived to be anti-restructuring; hence it may be difficult to get it achieved…?
(Cuts in) I am saying that the entire north does not speak one language. The fact that Hausa is the common language doesn’t make them all Hausa. In the Northeast, the substantial block doesn’t speak Hausa. In the Middle Belt, the substantial block may speak Hausa, but they are not Hausa. What I am saying is that the north is not homogenous as we think.
For example, the 8th National Assembly did massive changes to the constitution, but we never bothered about them until the last moment when it was going, before our leaders in the southern part of the country went to visit them.
I say our leaders, including Chief Nnia Nwodo, who gave a beautiful and brilliant presentation. Papa Edwin Clark, Professor Banjo Akintoye was there and it was when they visited that they realised the lawmakers had passed so many resolutions and two-thirds of the State Assemblies had endorsed a lot of the changes to the constitution.
They even went as far as passing an amendment to say that where the President withholds his assent to any change in any parts of the constitution, which has been approved by National Assembly and two-thirds of the state assemblies, a veto by the National Assembly makes such amendment become law, irrespective of the President’s assent or not.
This is very vital, but our elders never bothered to lobby the last National Assembly and even up till today, we have not thought it fit to go and educate the senators and members of the House of Representatives on what we want.
Whether we like it or not, we can never wish away the current National Assembly on this issue of restructuring.
What is your take on the recent committee set up by the 9th National Assembly to review the constitution again?
We must engage them in the discussion. We are too much of labeling people for nothing. Some of our leaders take what I will describe as a militant position. Some of us have taken a political positions on the issue of restructuring, but have they ever called to discuss or find out what we in the APC are doing on restructuring?
We insisted on putting true federalism in the manifesto of APC and I keep asking why have they not been engaged and telling us to go and implement what we promised Nigerians? We went further, under the former national chairman of APC, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, set up a committee, chaired by Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai to draft amendment to suggestion on true federalism and it went back to work. Current Minister of the Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, a militant from the Southwest, was a member of the committee.
The committee produced a report, which came to the national caucus of our party, but did our leaders in Southwest bothers to engage us in APC and the government? They should stop the name-calling, labelling of people and zeroing on Buhari. The President alone can do nothing; he has no power to set up an SNC. No President in this country can do that without the approval of the National Assembly. The reality must be there.
What I am saying is that, like the Ireland issue, they fought, killed, but at the end of the day, they returned to the conference table. And till tomorrow, the struggle for independence is still on even within the UK, which has been together for centuries. Scotland is still insisting on separation and the parliament in London has been devolving power from London to the Scottish parliament.
The struggle can never end because there is no country without its challenge. I don’t see any wrong in we asked for a change. Any change in the structure of Nigeria would benefit everybody. We that are convinced about true federalism, which we call restructuring, need to explain our position to others for them to understand what we mean.
Similar complaints we had under the military have not changed over 20 years since Nigeria returned to civil rule. Does this not suggest that we need a radical departure from this present constitution, as some are saying?
We need to rearrange our approach. For example, when we were in government, Lagos State under Asiwaju Bola Tinubu instituted series of cases, in which all of us, the 36 states, were involved, and we made changes to the constitution through that system. We insisted that local government is the business of the state and we got judgment at the Supreme Court.
We went to court on fiscal responsibility and we insisted that all revenue must go to the Federation Account and won during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. That was why Obasanjo wanted all the then governors in the Southwest out of government in 2003. Part of the issues we had was that when we had a President from the Southwest, the opportunities to make changes were there.
If we have been going to courts to test this constitution, we would have reached a certain level of change.
I also know that the 8th Senate did a lot of changes to the constitution and our people never bothered to even ask them what they were doing. For instance, they are already saying the committee that was set up to review the constitution is useless even before they start work, forgetting that abuses will not solve our problem. I would say we should go and engage the committee and put our opinions before them.
The two-third of the state assemblies have passed a lot of changes to the constitution in respect of local government and other related issues.
You once said that if Nigeria refused to restructure in peace, it might be forced to do it through violent means. Are we not tilting towards that with the high rate of insecurity and insurgency across the country?
I am not a prophet; I am only talking in terms of history and I keep giving the example of Yugoslavia. (Josip Broz) Tito forcefully reined in all the ethnic groups in the country, but after he died, it was discovered that what he did was a make-belief union and massacre on a large scale took place.
The way Nigeria is going, that is an option we must bear in mind can happen at any time if we are not careful and we don’t show evidence of being amenable to changes. I grew up to have classmates in the schools across Nigeria and my best friends then were Igbo. I never thought of them as Igbo and my children today don’t even care.
So, what we tolerated, the generations coming behind may not and may likely end up having a kind of Yugoslavia separation that I don’t pray for.
Another option is this: When I was young, I told a friend that the most important ideological book we had was quotations from Mouse and Tongue. We read it like the Bible. We were very familiar with communism, socialism then and the Soviet Union was an example of a socialist state. I never knew that the country was not that united.
We have the choice to go the Yugoslavia way or the Soviet Union way, where the different unions that formed the country decided to separate peacefully, or Czechoslovakia, where the Czeks and Slovaks decided to separate. Just like today, they told us they didn’t go to European Union (EU) to unify their political system; they went there as economy/market union to sell goods and not to subsume their culture and values to a larger body/ and that was the major reason the UK left.
Can we then assume that insurgencies and other crimes are indications that this system and incumbent administration have failed?
I won’t use the word failure at all. Every system and country faces its own challenges at different times and we will continue to face challenges. At a time, the mafias were in control in Italy and there were killings. Post-1999, there were many political killings and some insurgencies.
I agree that with ISIS and this militancy or crises, there are so many challenges for Nigeria and that is why I said we just have to work together, face the issue and find common solutions to it.
The regions are coming up with separate security outfits, just after Southwest governors launched their security initiative, codenamed Operation Amotekun. Do you foresee the danger in this trend?
There is nothing new; we have always had a native authority Police. My father was in the native authority Police in Abeokuta. We, the Egba, were not part of Nigeria, but we had the Egba United Kingdom and we had native authority Police. The north had native authority Police and local government Police.
As long as we over-centralised the Police, we cannot make serious achievements and this is where true federalism comes in. Policing and intelligence gatherings have to be reduced to the locality. But when you now leave an Inspector General of Police (IGP) in Abuja to control the Police in Dongeji, one island in Ogun State, or in Ipokia, how does he do that? How can he control the one in Niger Delta? Over-centralisation is our problem and that is why our security information gathering is inadequate.
Do you support Amotekun…?
Oh, no serious Yoruba won’t and every one of us is Amotekun. I don’t agree it can destabilise Nigeria. For instance, Lagos State under Tinubu started LASTMA and has the organisation constituted a threat to the security of Nigeria? There was no civil defence until Obasanjo came, but why must it all be federally centralised? The idea of FRSC was Wole Soyinka’s and it was initially purely for Oyo State under the late former governor, Chief Bola Ige. Then it was hijacked by the national government.