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‘Buhari should convoke a national conference now to re-negotiate Nigeria’

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Chief Chekwas Okorie

National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, in this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, urges President Muhammadu Buhari to convoke a national conference during his second term in office where the myriad of issues bedeviling the country will be thrashed. He also wants the President to keep to his pledge to run an inclusive government even as he tasks him on addressing tackling some of the infrastructural challenges facing the country.

President Muhammadu Buhari commenced his second term in office last Wednesday. What do you think he should do differently to succeed this time?
Let me say that President Buhari himself has set the ball rolling in the direction I will really want. He set the ball rolling on the day he accepted his Certificate of Return from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) when without being persuaded or prompted he said he would run an inclusive government this time. And he has repeated it on three different official occasions, which means that he is really determined to do that. That will be very good for a country as diverse and heterogeneous as Nigeria.

Recently when the All Progressives Congress (APC) governors went to honour him at the villa, he surprised the whole nation when he made the statement that at this point in our democracy, true federalism has become imperative and indeed compelling. That was a very soothing statement coming from the president without being prompted or persuaded.

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I want to believe that if he made this statement before the campaign, some people might think that it was a campaign talk as his rival was using it as a campaign issue. But now he has won and doesn’t require to campaign for anything again. So, I will encourage him to go in that direction.

As a matter of fact, while consolidating on governance in the areas of fighting insecurity and anti-corruption crusade, he should also consider declaring a state of emergency in the power sector. Nigeria is an embarrassing story to tell when it comes to the power sector.

For a country that is desirous of growth to be talking about generating 4,000 to 5,000 megawatts of electricity is appalling. So, a state of emergency is required in the power sector to address the situation.

It has been proved to be totally economically unwise to depend on the seaport in Lagos alone to service a country as large as Nigeria with so many business people who are importing and exporting goods. Before now, even before the civil war, there were seaports along the coastal lines that have been abandoned and everything is now concentrated in Lagos.

Look at how Lagos is today with all the setbacks businesses now suffer as a result of the situation. So, he should make reopening all the abandoned seaports as quickly as possible a cardinal programme of his second tenure. Doing this will surely expand our economy.

He should also summon the political will to encourage ranching. Nigerians want a situation where farmers can sleep and wake up in the morning and see that their crops are in their farms.

Nigerians want a situation where farmers can plant their crops and expect that they would harvest them; not planting and then livestock will come and eat them up. Ranching will solve that problem; ranching will solve the problem of cattle rustling. In fact, ranching will solve half of our security problems in Nigeria today, especially in the North.

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You lauded the President’s earlier pledge to run an inclusive government. As a major voice in the South East, how do you think he can now accommodate the zone, which cried of marginalisation almost throughout his first term?
Let me start from the security architecture, which many people are very concerned that one of the three biggest ethnic groups in Nigeria is not represented in the security council of this country. I will expect that he address that as urgently as possible.

Then in the ministries, every state in Nigeria has a ministerial position guaranteed by the constitution. But we use to classify ministries in terms of ‘A’ and ‘B’; and we know those ones that are ‘A’ ministries and those ones that are ‘B’ ministries. It will appear that all that the South East got in his first term were mostly the ‘B’ ministries. That didn’t quite give the people a sense of belonging. So, he needs to redistribute some of the ministries and ensure that every geopolitical zone is represented at both the ‘A’ and ‘B’ ministries.

There are also the departments and agencies. Sometimes you saw an Igbo person removed as DG of an agency or department and immediately replaced by somebody from outside the South East. One expected that somebody from another zone removed from a similar position elsewhere will be replaced by an Igbo person but one never saw that. If you look at the number of commissioners of police we have in Nigeria today, it tells a story of alienation. That is one of the reasons the people think that with state police, they will manage security in their states better. But that will be covered under the true federalism that the president talked about.

What necessary steps do you think the President should take to advance the cause of true federalism in this country?
Well, I know that it could be a bit expensive the way Nigeria is now, but no amount of money is too much to ensure an equitable country that will give everybody a sense of belonging.

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The Jonathan administration spent about N7 billion, according to their record, to conduct a national conference and after all the work some people condemned it. The president himself made a very damning remark about that conference. So, even if it costs N10 billion this time because of inflation to convoke a national conference composed the way he thinks is more representative than the previous one, that will be the way to go.

Let me say that mere constitutional amendments here and there will not do it, because there are so many areas that need to be addressed if we really want to have, first of all, a true federal structure with devolution of power and all the attendant aspects of a federation. It is something that requires a comprehensive constitutional reform, which will come by way of a constitutional conference. If he is able to do that, that will be wonderful.

The argument has always been that the elected representatives in the National Assembly (NASS) are in a position to effect the necessary changes in the constitution that will address the issue of true federalism?
That is not enough. They can be making laws but they will run into hitches when they go into certain amendments because of the obstacle to constitutional amendments where the NASS has to secure two third of the state assemblies approval for an amendment to sail through. But if you come through a constitutional conference, all that will not be required.

For instance, many people have been talking of unicameral legislature as the way to go. You don’t expect this NASS to ever touch that because they are enjoying what they have and wouldn’t want to be the ones to stop themselves. So, there are so many aspects.

But you find that the recommendations of the national conference will also have to pass through the NASS. This country has held national conference severally without success so why do you think we should go the same way again?
The problem has never been the NASS to pass what has been agreed on. For instance, the last conference we had, Jonathan never presented anything to the NASS. Also, the one before then didn’t go to the NASS to be passed.

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The Abdusalami Abubakar military regime disrupted everything that was agreed by the national conference organised by Abacha.

For example, the six-zone structure was a clear recommendation of the national conference convoked by Abacha. When the conference submitted its report to Abacha, he set up another committee to review the recommendations and they couldn’t complete that assignment before Abacha died. Gen. Abubakar came and made a mess of the entire document.

Now, we are using six-zone structure when it is convenient but it is not in the constitution, whereas it should have been because it was recommended. But the military distorted it and imposed on us the obnoxious 1999 constitution that has become the problem of Nigeria and a cog in the wheel of progress and national unity.

Finally, this dispensation is just taking off and people are already engrossed in talks about 2023 presidency. What is your take on the development?
It’s good that 2023 is being considered. That is all about politics. As soon as you get done with one election, the next four years will also come on. So, there is nothing wrong in that.

When you look at Nigeria the way it is now, there is an unwritten rotational arrangement between North and South, which has almost become conventional.

Now everybody is expecting that under normal circumstances, the South will be looked upon to produce the next president. And it appears that the dingdong is now between the South West and South East.

So, that is what is going on. At the end of the day, it is which geopolitical zone between that two that is able to engage the North in a more robust manner that will carry the day. But in terms of equity, justice and fairness, it should just be South East.

Let me now advise the people of South East that gunning for the presidency of Nigeria in 2023 and their desire to have a restructured Nigeria cannot be separated. They work hand in hand. I say this because I hear some people including intellectuals, who now appear to me as pseudo-intellectuals, saying that Igbo people want restructuring not the presidency.

How can you get restructuring without being in the seat of power or close to the seat of power. So, we must have our eyes on the ball. We must be looking at 2023 to be either in power or close enough to be in power, which means we must be politically relevant. We must be a critical factor in the power equation in the country to be able to influence any meaningful restructuring because restructuring that involves other parts of Nigeria involves a lot of politics as well as diplomacy.


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