Nigeria@63: ‘There was a country where our diversity was strength’
Regarded as the father of modern day Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Bassey Attah, a two-term governor of the state, was at the forefront of the fight for resource control and true federalism. Attahspoke with AYOYINKA JEGEDE on Nigeria’s 63 years of independence, way forward and restructuring, among others.
Nigeria at 63, how will you describe the journey so far?
My simple answer to that is that the journey has been downhill, because we are travelling the wrong road. I say so because we say one thing and practise something completely different. We claim to be a federation, but we practiseunitarianism. We claim to be a democracy, but we practise some obnoxious form of imperial presidency. We take all the powers from the federating units and make them subordinate and subservient to the central government.
That is not what we agreed to in 1960. We want to blame our failure on democracy, as practised in the western world, while that is not what we practise here. We know what to do, but we stubbornly refuse to do it.
Many described the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates as a ‘forced’ marriage. What is your view on this?
I don’t know why we keep harping on or referring to the amalgamation of 1914. Even if that was for the convenience of our British colonial masters, I want to emphasise that we, the people of Nigeria, without any external force or coercion, voluntarily, consensually, and quite happily agreed to come together and stay together as a country in 1960.
From 1953 when the late Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for self-governance, it took us seven years, from 1953 to 1960, to hammer out the terms and conditions for staying together. We agreed to be a true federation, with full resource control and each region, as they were then, to develop itself as best it could within its means.
Total freedom of where one wanted to reside as common citizens of the same country was guaranteed without any discrimination or disenfranchisement. That was the Nigeria that we inherited from our founding fathers.The military interregnum turned all that on its head with its unitary form of government, and today, we are a badly fractured and disharmonious society.
What is your view on the clamour for restructuring?
I am sure you know my view on restructuring. I once said to the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) that we must device our own perestroika or perish. Without restructuring, there is no hope for the future of this country. By restructuring, I am not talking about regionalism or some such anachronistic concept.
I am talking about establishing the federation with the existing 36 federating units and the Federal Capital Territory; a federation where the federating units and the centre are co-ordinate with none being subordinate to any other; a federation where we will be able to bring back healthy competition, rather than jealous rivalry between the federating units; a federation with emphasis on productivity, each according to its means and resources.Those were the negotiated terms that brought us together as a country in 1960. And, if I may add, it is my total conviction that such a federation would thrive and flourish much better under a parliamentary system.
The country is passing through myriads of problems, including insecurity, kidnapping, corruption, poor leadership and unemployment, to mention a few.
What is the way out?
Since the problems are myriads, there cannot be only one solution. But having said that, I will be the first to admit that they all seem to have one root cause, which is bad governance.
If we had good governance, all those evil things that plague us today, such as bad economy, unemployment, insecurity, falling standards of education and health care, corruption, lack of patriotism, tribalism, nepotism, the japa syndrome or brain drain, I believe they would all be mitigated or abated. A government that cannot provide its citizens with the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, food, clothing, infrastructure, light, water or good roads cannot hope to win the love or loyalty of the people.
We can say that the Federal Government alone cannot do all these. The truth is that nobody would expect the Federal Government to do all these, but for the fact that the federal government, under this faulty, de-structured system, which we have refused to jettison, has seized every resource and turned a beautiful federal system that was working on its head.
Can you imagine that as a governor, I was determined to give my state 24-hour constant power supply. I spent the state government money to build a power plant of 191 megawatt. The Federal Government, quite cynically, waited for me to finish and then came out with a law that if I generate power, I cannot distribute it, that I must sell it to the national grid. How perverse!
How can that possibly encourage people who want to develop their state? I wanted to build a seaport and an airport; I was stopped. It is a miracle, by the grace of God, that we have the airport today. This system must change if we want progress.
Nobody in his right mind would continue in any form of activity that brings discomfort or some form of retribution to him. With the billions of naira and dollars that we hear is being stolen, with all the killings and kidnappings that occur, how many have been brought to trial, not to mention, convicted? Instead, they are even sometimes rewarded.
So, the evil thrives because there are no sanctions or punishment for such crimes. Think of Leah Sharibu, think of those eight youngenthusiasticcorps members from Akwa Ibom, happily going to serve their country from the comfort of their homes. For about 40 days now, they have been in captivity. It is pathetic.
Sixty-three years after independence, is there really unity in our diversity?
My answer is that there was. The late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe contested election and nearly became the premier in the West. In 1950, Olorunimbe was elected the first mayor of Lagos, his deputy was Mazi Mbonu Ojike, an Igbo man.In 1956, the first elected mayor of Enugu was a Fulani man called Mallam Umaru Altine. In 1957 in Kano, an Igbo man, Felix Okonkwo, was appointed as a special member to the Northern House of Chiefs.
In 1959, the Sarakin Hausawa in Onitsha was elected as a member to the Eastern House of Chiefs. In 1961, the people of Aba voted for Margaret Ekpo, and the people of Abakaliki voted for Chief Eyo Bassey, both non-Igbos, to represent them in parliament. Before all these, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had led the campaign for Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw man, to defeat Chief Akinsanya in an election in Lagos.Yes, indeed there was a country, where our diversity was our strength, but sadly, we have lost it.
The President Bola Tinubu-led administration promised ‘Renewed Hope’, with what the country is passing through today, do you see a renewed hope?
I am glad that this government has promised renewed hope; this must start with national reconciliation. The government must give serious thought to this. When this is done, we can bring about a rebirth.
Nobody will ever agree to remain in a country where he considers the terms and conditions of its existence repugnant. We must, therefore, agree to renegotiate, and the negotiations must be with the full acceptance of the fact that there are tremendous advantages in being a large and diverse nation.Alternatively, we can simply go back to the framework of the 1960/63 Constitution.
What is the way forward?
The way forward is to correct our wrong ways. Let’s start with the basics– election. Election is the backbone or the anchor of any democratic system. If an election is flawed, the government loses legitimacy and the support of the people.
Increasingly, our elections are not being conducted with ballot boxes, where the people cast their votes, but in the law courts. Even there, we still refuse to do the things that we should do. All pre-election issues should be settled before elections, we don’t. All election matters should be concluded before swearing in, we refuse.
We come with this impossible demand that whoever alleges that an election was flawed must prove. That is most ridiculous! How can we possibly expect the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to provide the evidence that will be needed to convict itself?
INEC is the first to allege that it has conducted free and fair elections by declaring the results, so INEC is who should be called upon to prove its allegation by providing the electoral materials that, in any case, are in its custody.
When Donald Trump tried to question the election results in the United States (US), it was not him that was called upon to prove anything. It was the electoral bodies in Atlanta and Pennsylvania that were called upon to do a recount, and all those disputed issues were disposed of and settled before President Joe Biden was sworn in.
We must conduct proper elections if we want to return sovereignty to the people, convey legitimacy on our government and win the confidence of the people. And the people must have the absolute right at any time to vote out any government with which they become disenchanted.
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