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‘Why Okun-Yoruba wants to leave the North’

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Jibril Olu Yusuf


Jibril Olu Yusuf, President of African Centre for Development Research (ACDR) and Secretary, Okun Liberty Advocacy Group (OLAG), who is working in conjunction with the umbrella Okun Development Association (ODA) in the renewed agitation by the Yoruba-speaking people of Kogi State to be excised from the North and merged with their kith and kin in the Southwest geo-political zone, spoke to RALPH OMOLOLU AGBANA on recently submitted memorandum by the ODA to the National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review and other issues.

What is the subject matter of the memorandum submitted by the Okun Development Association (ODA) to the National Assembly Committee on Constitution Amendment?
OKUN Development Association’s (ODA) submission is about the administrative and political re-configuration of the country for greater peace, security and social economic development.

The Okun people have been advocating excision from the northern part of the country and want to be merged as a separate administrative unit with the Southwest, because that is where they will not be a minority. And note that this predates whatever is happening now.

Okun tabled their case before the Willing Commission of Enquiry before independence, when ethnic groups were placed in provinces they should not be for the fear of being turned into minorities.

How old is the agitation and why do you think it is realisable at this time?
The Okun people appeared before the Willing Commission of Enquiry, which the colonial authorities set up before independence for fear of becoming a minority in the Northern Protectorate. But more than that, every opportunity has been used to reiterate this demand for liberty to determine where and how we want to be placed in Nigeria.

There is no time it is not realistic, to the extent that the objective has not been achieved. From all parts of the country and from all strata of the Nigerian society, people, as individuals and groups, are asking for what they want and what they think will make them happier as citizens of the country. We too must use the opportunity to say what we want out of Nigeria.

Anyone who keeps quiet and fails to make demands on the system will have him/herself to blame. Nigeria will be re-arranged sooner or later, and may be sooner than later.

Geographically, how does it work out; going from the north to the south?
Geographically, Okunland is contiguous with the Southwest and bordered in the South by Ondo and Ekiti states. It is this contiguity that best facilitates and makes the demand very reasonable.

Where does the agitation leave the Middle Belt?
With respect to the Middle Belt, you know it is a cocktail of many ethnic, religious and other groups. If the Okun people exit the Middle Belt, that reduces the complexity by one group. It is in the Middle Belt and in the South-South regions that we have to demonstrate the progress our democracy has made. This is where the greatest efforts have to be made to build inclusion and promote sense of belonging among all the forces that make up the country.

Despite the termination of military rule, democratisation as a process of inducing popular participation in governance is yet to begin. Since 1999, people have been pursuing power by all means necessary, fair or foul, more foul than fair. So, the Middle Belt has to re-organise itself and deepen democracy, so that all the elements there feel that they belong.

At a point in history, the Okun and Ebira made moves to come together as a separate state. What happened to that arrangement?
Attempts were made in the past to build a state made up of the Lokoja/Koto people, Ebira people and the Okun people. Somehow, we have not been able to agree on the details.

The last time such an attempt was made was in 2012, when at the palace of the Ohinoyi of Ebiraland, Alhaji Ado Ibrahim, we pronounced that we would jointly form a state to be known and called Kabba State, to the great applause of all those present.
However, when it came to working out the details, our people from Ebiraland reneged.

What is the level of involvement expected from members of the National Assembly?
Realistically, the type of restructuring envisaged might not be done by the current National Assembly, because Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, who is the Deputy Senate President, in his speech during the inauguration of the committee, described the extent it would go in its assignment.

To rearranged the country demands that we put everything on the table and pick them one by one. Each and every group will say what it wants out of Nigeria, how each and every group wants to be treated. Any group that says nothing will hold the short end of the cake at the end of the day. So, every group will be treated according to its demand.

Where does the excision of Okunland leave the rest of Kogi State?
I cannot say what will become of Kogi State.

Do you envisage the northern oligarchy opposing the ceding of any parts of the Middle Belt states to the south?
The possibility is there. Remember that during the last constitutional conference before independence, the Ilorin-Kabba West merger was debated and the then premier of the northern region, the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, had to wait for a response from the Sultan. It was when the cable message came from the Sultan that no inch of the northern territory would be ceded to anywhere that the debate was closed. And Ilorin and Kabba have remained with the north since then.

Between then and now, huge changes have taken place, in terms of social and economic development, to make people know that territorial conquest is no longer fashionable. On the other hand too, social and human developments have opened the eyes of everyone and conscientised people to stand up to challenge any situation they do not like or anything that makes life difficult for them.

If the merger advocacy fails when and any time that Nigerians have the opportunity of discussing the affairs of their country, the struggle will continue. We shall continue to use all legitimate and constitutional means of advocating for it.

Are the Okuns in Kwara, Ondo and Ekiti states parties to this arrangement?
With respect to the Okun people in those states you have mentioned, for a long time, we have been discussing, and the discussion is work in progress.

How did Okunland in Kogi State get separated from other Okun- speaking communities in other states in the Southwest?
The other Okun people in other states are separated from the others by the arbitrary manner boundaries were drawn by the colonialists. Many of these people ran away from the invasions of the jihadists.

For example, people in places like Irele, Ipao, Itapaji, Oke-Ako and others easily trace their roots to places like Ejuku, Jege, Ogbom and several Okun communities that were sacked and reconstituted by the invaders.

Some young Okun people blame Okun leaders during the First and Third Republics for where the people find themselves today and failure to stop their merger with present Kogi State. What could the past leaders have done differently?
To blame the First republic leaders for the present predicament of the Okun people is to be unfair to them. People do not appreciate the limitations of our forerunners.

For example, Chiefs S.B. Awoniyi and S.B. Daniyan have been blamed for not taking them out of the north. These two great people were among the closest to Sardauna, I do not think there was much they could do to change the situation.

And to be fair to Chiefs Bello Ijumu and Alege, who were in NEPU and AG, respectively, from the accounts that we have, they did what they could to advocate for merger with the Southwest. Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo, J.S. Olawoyin, Seth Maiyekogbon, C.O. Adebayo, etc have never left the matter in the cold.

Furthermore, it should be remembered that what we inherited was a social system that was complete in all materials. It takes time for a system to decay and be ready for change. The system that the colonialists handed over at independence had decayed and needs change. If it is not overhauled, it will collapse under its dead weight.

On the inclusion of Okun people in Kogi State, they did not stand a chance not going. One, those who wanted Kogi State desperately needed Okun to make the number, and two, the Ilorin emirate system wanted Okun out of Kwara, as they were seen as the stumbling block on the way of the emirate’s ambition of total control of Kwara.

For when moves were being made to advocate for the creation of Kogi State, there was no grammar that they did not speak to say that they did not want to go to Kogi State.

Unfortunately, what made them to fiercely objected to being included in Kogi State became self-fulfilling prophecy when they got there.

What do you think are the critical aspects of restructuring that is envisaged in a new Nigeria?
The aspects of restructuring that should be addressed are many. Among these are the issue of arbitrary location of communities to places and peoples with whom they are not compatible. This is reflected in the current highly inflammable situation that people of same cultural and historical heritage are scattered across different boundaries.

For example, the Yoruba in Kogi and Kwara states that, to all intents and purposes, are the same with the Yoruba in the Southwest are lumped with the cocktail of groups and grouplets in the North Central part of the country.

There is also the combustible situation in Kaduna State, where the largely non-Hausa/non-Fulani and majorly Christian ethnic groups are lumped with the Muslim/Hausa/Fulani in the northern part of the state.

In the case of the Yoruba in Kogi, they want to go to the Southwest as a state. The Southern Kaduna people have been agitating to get their own state. Other minority groups in several parts of the country should get what they want in such a way that they will be relieved of the yoke of the tyranny of the majorities. This will enable them to develop their economies and cultures at their own pace.

Another critical aspect of the restructuring we are advocating for is the re-configuration of the country into more viable administrative and political units. In this regard, we are looking at the imperative of creating six or eight regions as federating units.

The federal and regional governments will relate directly, while the regional government and the states under it will relate directly. The states and local governments will also relate directly. The local government will no longer be a tier of government and the number of local government areas in each state will depend on what it can cope with.

In this arrangement, ethnic groups or communities who are located where they do not want should be allowed to go to states or regions or even local government areas, where for one reason or the other, they feel they will be more comfortable and they feel they belong. This way, a major cause of tension will have been removed.

Another critical factor is that too much power is concentrated in the hand of the Federal Government. One of the immediate fallouts of restructuring will be the reduction in the amount of powers put in the hand of the Federal Government. In the 1999 Constitution, on the Exclusive Legislative List are about 68 items, while on the Concurrent List are just about 30 items.

This pattern of distribution of power has goaded the Federal Government to put its hands into too many things that should ordinarily be left in the hands of the lower levels of government. In a federation, the government at the centre should not have anything to do with primary education, neither should it concern itself with primary health care.

Take the issue of security, when we were growing up in the early 1960s before the war, we only knew the Native Authority Police. How one person can sit in Louis Edet House in Abuja and effectively police a country as large as Nigeria is a question I have been asking, which no one has been able to give me the answer.

The tax powers granted to Federal Government should be considerably reduced in favour of the federating units. The amount of financial and tax powers in the hand of the government at the centre should be such as will allow the regional and other governments to be able to carry out their own responsibilities. The Federal Government should not have more than 30 per cent of the revenue accruing.

What is your take on the distribution of national wealth under the current government and allegations of favouritism?
If you talk of President Muhammadu Buhari in terms of the distribution of national wealth, it must be conceded that there are certain worthy projects that he has embarked upon that cannot be denied. The first I usually mention here is the Second Niger Bridge that had been on the drawing board before my mother was born.

Even when the President of the country, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), ministers of Finance and Petroleum were from the precinct of the bridge, nothing was done about it. And this was a time when crude oil sold well above $100 per barrel for several years.

The construction of the Standard Gauge railway from Apapa to Ibadan is another landmark project. There are several other projects, like the Mambilla Dam, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, Kaduna-Kano-Abuja expressway, etc, that are to be embarked upon, for which Buhari must be commended.

Many of these projects could have been embarked upon when Nigeria was more solvent and when they would have been cheaper, but somehow, they were not seen as priorities then. I take these as elements of the distribution of national wealth.

Another element of the distribution of wealth is the set of programmes under the social investment programme initially coordinated from the office of the Vice President and now consolidated in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Among these are the School Feeding Programme, Market Money, etc.

Through this, millions of Nigerians who ordinarily and all along had been outside the matrix of wealth distribution in Nigeria have had some access to something out of the national wealth.

However, there are challenges in this area, such as complaints about disproportionate percentage of the national wealth going to the lawmakers, in terms of their extractive ratios for salaries, allowances and projects.

Although this issue predated the present government, people expected the President to have reduced or narrowed this ratio. Unfortunately, it remains the same. Indeed and in fact, Nigeria recently attained the unenviable appellation of the poverty capital of the world.

What is your take on the resurgence of agitation for self-determination?
Since Buhari took over as the President, the cry for self- determination has reached a crescendo. This may be attributed to a number of factors, among which is the poor management of the country’s diversity.

Nigerians have consistently decried the practice of appointing people of the same religion and from the same part of the country from both the north and south. Most of the appointments into the headship of security establishments are from the far north and all are Muslims.

The poor management of migration into the country has not helped matters. The Visa-at-entry point policy of government has opened the country’s borders to people from Sahelian countries, who in their trails, have left communities devastated with their criminal and murderous activities.

As a result, land ownership has become contentious. Farmers in several parts of the country cannot go to their farms the way they used to for fear of their lives.

So far, the President has not done much to assuage the fears and other concerns of Nigerians about the continuing trend of his lopsided appointments and the free entry that he gave to these migrants whose arrivals escalated criminality across the country.

In response, Nigerians in their different ways have increased the tempo of their agitation. While some are calling for restructuring, some others are calling for self-determination. Before, it used to be agitation for Biafra, now the agitation for Oduduwa Republic has joined and the Middle Belt, which has been the cannon fodder of the north, is seriously agitating for independence.


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