Akuns: We need to interrogate Nigeria’s foundation as political entity
Da Jonathan Sunday Akuns, the Galadima Daffo of Bokos Plateau State and a former Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in this interview with LEO SOBECHI, says the Middle Belt’s stance is not a gang up against the north but an analogy for the restructuring of Nigeria.
Many Nigerians see the death of Dr. Obadiah Mailafia as a big blow to the cause of the Middle Belt. Was he leading the perceived middle belt gang-up against the core north?
Thank you. I have been back to my community in Plateau after a 35-year career tenure at the Central Bank of Nigeria. I have had to come to Abuja for the final rites of passage for the funeral of Dr Mailafia, who was noted among other things, as a champion of the middle belt.
The middle belt issue is the analogy for a need to restructure the governance environment in Nigeria and the need to take a deep and sobre reflection to interrogate the founding of Nigeria as a single political entity.
My discussion with Dr Mailafia, we had a chat on September 9, and he was supposed to review three papers that I wrote on restructuring and power devolution in Nigeria. Unfortunately, after that chat, we never had the opportunity to talk, only to hear about his demise.
Basically and in a nutshell, European explorers, flag planting, I call them, in the 15th century, their pleasure was to explore the world and whoever was the first to land in any territory would plant the flag of his country thereafter commercial influence developed for trading.
After trading, the next one was for political sphere of interest for colonialism. During that early period, the country called Nigeria today was an entity of six (6) different territorial entities, contiguous though, but uniquely different in autochthony, completely different in culture, completely different in economy and in every aspect of life and labour.
The first step in unifying the six territorial entities in what is called Nigeria today began in 1900, when Lord (Frederick) Luggard unified three territories in the North: Sokoto Kingdom, Borno Kingdom, and what was called pagan district, which is the Middle belt in view.
The Middle Belt was specifically described by the Europeans as the area lying between middle Niger and River Benue down to about latitude six degrees around Bida. The whole of that area was described as Middle Belt and was technically referred to as pagan district.
So, with the three territorial entities in the North, Luggard unified them to become protectorate of Northern Nigeria. By 1906, the same exercise shifted down South to unify the lower Niger territory with its Niger territory and Lagos, which was already a colony and the interior, which is South West entity. Those three territorial entities were unified in 1906 as protectorate of southern Nigeria. Thereafter, in 1914, both North and South protectorates were unified as Nigeria.
You may also recall that Lagos had already stood as a colony from 1851 and John Beecroft provided colonial leadership or administration. That is what it was prior to 1914. When commentators say that 1914 was a mistake, they have forgotten that 1900 was the real mistake. 1906 was the founding mistake, so 1900 and 1906 led to 1914.
It is also on record that at the time Luggard wanted to unify the three territories in the North, the reigning monarchy in Sokoto Kingdom resisted that unification and issued a war threat in writing to Luggard. Luggard marched through the palace of the reigning monarch with his military power, the monarch fled, Luggard installed a new monarch that same day, who went after the fleeing monarch the following day, caught him and killed him.
One of the sons of the monarch that fled had to leave to present day Sudan with an entourage of about 25,000 people and made a permanent home and life there. Those are historical facts that cannot be denied and reversed.
So, today, if the colonial policy of one size fits all is proving difficult to sustain, there is a need to interrogate the founding, revisit it and design policies that will accommodate various shades of interest. After all, those six territorial entities are not anything different from what you have in Europe.
What is the size of Belgium as a country? What is the size of other similar countries in Europe? If the British wanted, those six entities would have been maintained as separate countries, but they chose unification. Life goes forward and not backwards. We have made some advances, beginning from 1946 constitution. And that was the first time the country called Nigeria had a constitutional approach to the unification. 1946 Richard’s constitution, which was finalised in 1958 and thereafter promulgated as the republican constitution of 1963.
Given that we affirm this much in history, let us go back to the founding. The efforts of the colonialists to seek consent of the six territorial entities for unifying us came belatedly by the work of the Willink’s commission, the constitutional conferences between 1946 and 1958 and the election that came after. But, all the same, it is work in progress.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight and advancement in technology and human efforts, we will look at models that have succeeded as states and as countries. And my preferred model, which I needed to discuss with Dr. Mailafia, is Switzerland.
Switzerland has four unique ethnic groups that make up that country. I think the French, the Germans, the Romans and I think the Italians… they have a collegiate Presidency, not a one size fits all Presidency. Nigeria can adopt that one rather than breaking apart into the pristine six territorial entities.
We can adopt that model of Switzerland, that is, adopting the collegiate model. Luckily enough, the six geo-political zones roughly approximate to the six original entities. With that kind of an arrangement, the fear of dominance by one ethnic group will be put at bay. And then, every region will know for sure that a time is coming when they can have a shot at the presidency of the federation.
The presidency of the country will not be a pie that someone will be dangling or a carrot or stick that will be applied at the whim or desire of any one person. I think that will help to keep the country united, as a federation and the assumed fiscal federalism will take proper shape.
Once power is clearly devolved, using the Swiss method, all the agitations will be managed carefully. I personally see IPOB (indigenous People of Biafra) as simple analogy for restructuring. Unfortunately, the entire country appears to yield to violence as a language of seeking entitlement to have a shot at the power block of the nation.
These are key issues and the debates for restructuring are sound ideals that Dr. Mailafia stood for as a champion of the middle belt. I know, in one of his comments, he advocated eight regions in the country against the existing six zones. It is still a debate and not a directive to be complied with. Other views can be put together, but the need to restructure is compelling, because one size fits all is not workable. Even in a family setup, where you have husband, wife and children, there cannot be one size fits all.
Political policy, economic policy, social policy, take Abuja as the centre of the nation, a policy pronouncement by the leader in Abuja is expected to be applied in 100 per cent; full compliance by the man in Sokoto, Maiduguri, Cross River, Bayelsa and at other locations in the federation.
That is not likely to happen and failure to achieve full compliance creates resentment at the centre. If one may hazard a sensitive question, one would say what is the difference between IPOB and Boko Haram in terms of ideology? Boko Haram’s ideology is to control territories; IPOB’s ideology is the same. How come the one size fits all is not applied uniformly to dealing with these cases? These are issues that call for restructuring.
I do not think Dr. Mailafia ever asked for a breakup of the country. And some of us that tend to share those views do not advocate for a breakup, except it becomes compelling as the last resort. So, these are some of the issues of the middle belt.
But nothing challenges the country like the worsening insecurity in virtually every part of the country…
I was pained recently when I heard British Minister saying that there is no partnership that would help Nigeria to solve its security challenges. It was the British Minister of African affairs, when she met with Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister. That same day, the US (United States) Secretary of State was holding a virtual meeting with the Nigerian President (Muhammadu Buhari) on the same security issue. They reached the same conclusion that no partnership can help. That spurred me to write. In fact, I wrote three articles and I need to discuss them with professional writers. But in the articles, I said, ‘no! that partnership can help Nigeria solve its security problems.’
There are precedents in history. And it begins with the treaty of Tordesillas. The 1494 treaty of Tordesillas (Between Spain and Portugal) is the foundation of the partnership that resolves security challenges around the world. Thereafter, we look at the berlin conference of 1884/85. It was the partnership of European powers that resolved squabbling between European powers on the partitioning of Africa.
There was also a partnership of allied forces that defeated the German hegemonic ascendancy. Allied forces fought the Second World War and defeated Hitler of Germany. Hitler had sought to entrench ethnic hegemony of the Germans over the world. That was a partnership that resolved that issue.
The war-devastated Europe was repaired by the marshal plan from the US; that was a partnership that resolved that issue. You can cite as many partnerships that have resolved conflicts as possible. So, what is it that makes the partnership incapable of resolving Nigeria’s problems today?
The same Second World War partnership brought about the United Nations. The same Second World War partnership brought about the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund).
Further on that, there is this new tendency of the Middle Belt to identify with Southern leaders. Is it part of the gang up against the North or a search for sustainable peace and harmony for the country?
No, it is not a gang up against the North or any section of the country. It is simply a countrymen and women holding a debate about the need to restructure the governance of the country in such a way that no one section of the country lords itself over the rest. The idea of one size must fit all is alien to people of the Middle Belt, because of the diversity of our ethnicities.
We have found a way to manage diversities, but the other major tribes that are not as diverse in ethnicities in their societies as Middle Belt, tend to have a central command approach to life: one size must fit all, like the military setup.
See the system of their (North’s) monarchy, how it operates. But, the monarchy in the Middle Belt is very republican. As at amalgamation in 1914, the population of the Middle Belt was 3.2 million with only 10,000 Christians, zero Muslims. Borno Kingdom, Sokoto Kingdom had a population of 5.8 million with zero Christians.
Today, in 2021, the diversity of Middle Belt has expanded beyond ethnicities to religion; you have Muslims, you have Christians, you have people who belong to other faith that cannot be categorised into the two. But that was not the case in 1914.
We have learnt the art of managing diversity and that is why the case of governorship in Plateau State for instance, is rotated amongst the three senatorial districts in a clockwise direction. There was an attempt in 2015 to change the rotation, the people spoke under the aegis of Plateau Project, which entrenched the need for that rotation and it came to pass.
So, the Middle Belt is saying, ‘we are diverse in ethnicity, in religion, in social strata so, we know how to manage diversity. But, the rest of you that are not diverse, learn from us. And, if you cannot learn from us, then let us have a structure that permits us to move along our path while each one will move along its path but we remain one family of Nigeria.’
Do not say we must imbibe your own standard of one size must fit all, it will not work with us and your attempt to force it on us and our attempt to resist it tends to end up in conflict, in creating security challenges.
Let us restructure the country, we will not go violent, we believe in non-violent approach to solving issues, we believe in dialogue and conversation and like what we see from other parts of the country. If I may hazard against Boko Haram the banditry in North West and IPOB in Southeast and the other one in the South-South, all these are technically violent groups that are agitating for self-determination.
But, for Middle Belt, whichever way it goes, it is okay if you want the country to break, you hold the ace. Break it and leave us alone and if you want the country to remain together, then let us restructure and allow everybody to move at its own pace and be respectful of our traditions and culture as we respect your own.
So, there is no gang up to it at all. Anyone who alludes to a gang up is talking from his own reasoning or level of understanding. But at national perspective, we prefer a more united Nigeria than being apart. If we have to go the history of self-determination in Nigeria, you will be shocked to know that South East is not the first that clamoured for self-determination; Sokoto Kingdom was the first that resisted unification. The Sultan wrote a letter threatening Luggard, that they did not want it, but Luggard brought them under control through the force of arms.
Next to restructuring, another contentious issue in the country is about zoning of the presidency where some tendencies in the North insist that the presidency should remain in the North, others in the South are saying that to manage this diversity you are talking about, the presidency in 2023 should go to the South. Where do you stand on this?
I have responded to this question before and it is in prints in one of the newspapers. There are two things involved, the presidency as part of the governance infrastructure of the country and then party position as part of an institutional arrangement in the electoral process in the country.
When people talk about zoning, they tend to mix the two; zoning, for me as a person, is a global panacea for managing diversity. Let us take the United Nations, the overall boss is the Secretary General of the UN, it is zoned to the continents of the world; that is zoning. It is because of zoning that Africa had the chance to present two people where Ganny was taken to serve one term and gladly to reflect Africa, although North Africa belongs to the Middle East more. The man from Ghana who served two terms represented the African continent, If it was not for zoning, Africa would probably not have had a chance.
So, if zoning is accepted globally as a panacea for managing diversity, why should Nigeria as a member of the UN jettison zoning when it comes to governance, it should apply. I have listened to government debates on the issue of zoning by some parties and comments of some prominent frontline elders. My take is that they mixed party and governance office together.
In terms of governance, since 1999, President Obasanjo governed Nigeria from the South for two terms of eight years, Yar’adua from the North took over, but served only one term, Jonathan from the South took over and served only one term, it has reverted to the North with Buhari who is expected to serve two terms of eight years, so the equation is balanced; two terms with Obasanjo and one term with Jonathan, up North, two terms with Buhari and one term with Yar’adua.
After Buhari, naturally, it should go to the South; it is not a party matter, it is about the governance of the country, it should go to the South. Any party that wants to respect the feelings of Nigeria should zone the presidency to the South, whosoever comes from the South is a southerner by the definition of the North and the South so for me, the presidency going to the North is just a definition, a political struggle for people to achieve their objectives which may or may not necessarily be the presidency, so zoning should not be seen as something that can be jettisoned from power. It is the glue that is keeping the country together.