Nigeria’s unity very much negotiable, says Onwubiko
AHEAD of the October 1 independence celebration of Nigeria, former National Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and founder of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) Emmanuel Onwubiko spoke to ADAMU ABUH on national questions, factors inhibiting cohesion among sub-regions and the need for national dialogue.
How has the 1914 amalgamation contributed to the complex issue of nationality in Nigeria?
The question of nationality in Nigeria is very complex. First and foremost, there hasn’t been any kind of national dialogue or a meeting point of true representatives of different ethnic nationalities to discuss how they wish to live together because Nigeria is not a nation. It is an assemblage of many nationalities.
If you look at some parts of Eastern and Western Europe, you will see that there are ethnic blocs in Nigeria that are larger than some of those sovereign states. Some of them are not as big as some nationalities we have in Nigeria, like the Igbo nation and the Yoruba nation. So, Nigeria is a very big country, but it became a country without agreement by the stakeholders.
So, these are issues that we need to really debate, and going beyond the debate, Nigerians need to know some of the facts that are not available to so many people.
For instance, if the amalgamation was perfected in 1914, what kind of amalgamation was it? Was it an amalgamation that was time-bound? Is it an amalgamation that has a ten-year-old system or an amalgamation that must continue forever?
Nigerians need to know because of the view held by some personalities, particularly political actors, that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. That is not true. The unity of Nigeria is very much negotiable. In fact, we need to negotiate the unity of Nigeria. So, anybody expressing that kind of perception needs to have a rethink. Who was the person who brought the name Nigeria? It was just one British female journalist, a girlfriend of Lord Lugard. When did we actually even sit down to say we want to have a Nigerian nation? There is none!
There are other historical wrongs that have been done to so many ethnic nationalities of Nigeria that sometimes when you begin to look at them, it looks like certain people are above others.
Those powerful colonial forces have already left us. There seem to be some arrangements that certain categories of Nigerians must or should see themselves as having the right to the political offices of Nigeria, particularly the office of the Presidency. Sometimes you see people saying this person cannot be the President of Nigeria because he is an Igbo, or he is this, or he is that, or you need to go and negotiate with geopolitical zones.
What are the key challenges stemming from ethnic and regional divisions in Nigeria, and how do they impact national unity?
A lot of those challenges are situated around the revenue-sharing formula, which is not properly structured. Nigeria has no acceptable modality or methodology for determining which of those items of commerce the totality of Nigeria should share from revenues that accrue to the country. Example is the issue of having crude oil being sold and the revenues shared to every part of the country to an extent that there is a general perception that those in whose soil the crude oil resources are tapped are totally marginalised. This is completely unacceptable.
So, it’s one of the major issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about national unity. You can’t have a united Nigeria when certain persons whose home states are blessed with mineral resources contribute the revenue to the national purse, while some others go about mining solid minerals in manners that are not transparent.
Most of these states, like Zamfara, Borno, Nasarawa, and the rest of the northern states are heavily endowed with solid mineral resources. But Nigeria as a nation doesn’t seem to be benefiting from the revenues that are derived from the sale of some of these products.
How much is coming in from solid minerals that the tiers of governments are sharing every month? Normally, when they tell you they are going to Abuja to share revenues that are generated, it’s usually proceeds from the crude oil that they are talking about, or maybe revenues that are derived from customs, import taxes, import tariffs, and the rest of them.
What practical steps can be taken to rectify the disparities in resource allocation among states and regions, and how can this promote a more unified Nigeria?
The NHRC is almost as good as dead. The Public Complaint Commission (PCC) is not functional. So, you begin to ask, why are we as a nation not treating fundamental human rights violations as a major phenomenon that must be sufficiently confronted?
What we need to do is to find a level playing field to enable the different sub-regional groups and different sub-national entities to be financially autonomous to a very large extent.
And we need to find a way to even operate the country similar to what obtains in America. Nigeria must settle this dysfunctionality of having the parts of this country where crude oil is derived most marginalised and underdeveloped. For instance, if you have exploration works going on in a part of the country and you say, well, we’re not going to give employment opportunities to people from that particular part of the country, it is unfair.
It’s unjust because when you have crude oil exploration companies in the Niger Delta, as a matter of fact, 40 per cent of employment opportunities should go to the catchment areas of those communities. If they don’t have the requisite qualifications, you train them because those resources are found in their backyards. You have to train them to become petrochemical engineers or whatever. Those things are not rocket science. There are things that you can also find a way of getting local talents and making production activities, and exploration activities, to benefit the citizens of those communities.
You know, the system of saying, okay, we’re going to give 13 per cent derivation to oil-producing communities has never worked because you still find that crude oil-producing communities are some of the most affected parts of the country in terms of environmental pollution, unemployment, insecurity, and so many social factors.
Besides, there are a lot of human rights infractions and abuses that are committed by companies in Nigeria, particularly companies that are owned by foreigners, some of these mining companies, manufacturing companies don’t have a way of protecting the rights of those workers.
Some of them lose their limbs and hands while working for those companies.
The Minister of Labour and Productivity is not really concerned about the quality of rights that are granted to those Nigerian workers who are working in these companies that are owned by foreigners. Workers are treated as second-class citizens, both in terms of the amount of money they earn and the way and how they earn their living. Some of them, for example, have been abused flagrantly. There’s no mechanism in place for redress and protection.
What strategy can be employed to ensure that the rights and dignity of all Nigerians, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds are protected and promoted?
Nigeria needs to have functional legal mechanisms for the resolution of human rights-related issues. For now, Nigeria doesn’t seem to be ready to tackle the multifaceted and multidimensional human rights-associated crimes that are committed both by state actors and non-state actors. The NHRC is almost as good as dead. The Public Complaint Commission is not functional. So, you begin to ask, why are we, as a nation, not treating fundamental human rights violations as a very major phenomenon that must be sufficiently confronted? So, it’s a problem.
What role do international human rights organisations play in guiding Nigeria’s efforts to address issues related to nationality and identity?
I think we are actually at a crossroad because most of those things that we need to put on ground to safeguard democracy are institutions that must be independent.
If you begin to depend on international organisations, like the United Nations, or the office of the President of the U.S., and the rest of them, they are not serious about protecting and safeguarding democracy in Nigeria.
They don’t care. All they care about is to have a man who is going to be President of Nigeria who will be subservient to their ideology. So, it is basically a task that we must take upon ourselves and determine whether we want to operate democracy the way we want to operate it, or the way Joe Biden wants us to operate it because the American President will never give us real democracy.
If we want democracy, why did we allow a system, where elections are conducted and brazenly stolen, results are stolen and the courts now play a central role in determining who is the winner of elections? In doing that, there are allegations of lack of transparency and lack of accountability on the part of the judges. So, we need to really decide on the kind of government we want to practice today.
If we want true democracy, then we must allow free and fair elections. We must never allow a situation where elections are organised and certain ethnic groups are not allowed to exercise their franchise.
It is abnormal to find out that in certain states in Nigeria, certain ethnic nationalities have to go back to their places to vote. That’s exactly what happened on February 25. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal has also used some kind of technicality to deny Nigerians the benefit of that won victory.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.