‘Many of us were sent to prison because we demanded for independence of the country’
As the nation marks its 58th Independence anniversary on October 1, one of the few surviving nationalists and first minister of Aviation, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, in this interview with Southeast Bureau Chief, LAWRENCE NJOKU, bared his mind on the country’s journey to nationhood. Excerpts.
Fifty-eight years after independence, how do you see our march to nationhood?
In the last 20 years or so, every October 1 has been a day of sorrow for me. I am sad because the house I helped to build has been pulled down. The house has been destroyed. I was one of the nationalists that fought for Nigeria’s independence. I was one of the radical Zikists (followers of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe) imprisoned because we demanded strongly for the independence of the country. I remember people like Anthony Enahoro, Raji Abudara, Ogedegbe Macaulay, Nduka Eze, Ikenna Nzimiro, Bob Ogbuagu, Fred Anyim, among others. All these men, who were youths, then, were at the forefront in the fight for Nigeria’s independence.
Myself, Osita Agwunna and Mokwugo Okoye were sent to prison and many of us more than once, for the independence of the country. We made sacrifices. On October 1,1960, we had the glory of seeing our country freed from colonial imperialism and foreign rule by Great Britain, and we were happy. Two political parties formed an alliance and formed the first government of the country- the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), then led by the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto, and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Azikiwe. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a leader in opposition in parliament and also leader of his Action Group (AG), which also joined in the struggle in the independence. AG was also radical and progressive.
Awolowo was leader of the AG before independence and premier of Western Region. Azikiwe was premier of Eastern Region and Ahmadu Bello, premier of Northern Region. These regions were flourishing and they established business, ran the economy and controlled their own resources. There was no oil or gas in the country. The North depended solely on groundnut, the East on palm produce and the West on cocoa and timber and proceeds from these were used to build the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University).Things were going on smoothly. I personally was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for the first two years (1960-1962) and at the end of that assignment, I was appointed minister of Aviation.
For instance, in this ministry, I inherited just three piston engine aircraft from the Western Airways Corporation, but by the time I left after four or five years, I had established the Institute of Aviation in Zaria for the retraining of pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers and ground crew. I created the Nigeria Airways and from three piston engines to 18 jets, operating at international level. They ran daily services to almost all Europeans countries and America.
Six months after that, an unpatriotic military conducted a coup d’état overthrew a democratic government and the military then imprisoned, scattered and sent away these nationalists, the founding fathers and the great heroes that brought Nigeria’s independence, the people who founded Nigeria as republic. The military could not manage the country, because they are not trained to manage; they are trained to fight, to destroy, to conquer to loot and to steal. They are not trained to rule and govern.
So, within a few years, the military led the country into an avoidable civil war that lasted three years. The Biafran side lost the war, but since then, Nigeria has not been the same. Since then, the country has not enjoyed true freedom and unity, because the military took over the country and dissolved the existing institutions. Instead of a true federation that the founding fathers established, the military introduced a quasi system of government, whereby the states they created by military fiat.
The military ruled the country for 39 years. They introduced into the system massive looting, massive corruption and massive disorganisation. Some of the structures the founding fathers set up, like the Ajeokuta Steel that should have produced iron for this country to boost economy, the military destroyed it. They stole everything in the Nigeria Airways and sold the airport hanger that was established for the maintenance of the aircraft in Nigeria and for many other West African countries. Only Nigeria had hanger then, but the military sold everything.
These things went on every year. There was no wealth from the oil and gas. Everything was booming and so the groundnut pyramid of the North, the palm produce board of the East and the cocoa marketing board of the West disappeared, because oil and gas were producing money to a point that a military ruler, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, said Nigeria’s problem was “not money, but how to spend it.”
The military shared the wealth of the country among retiring generals and so you find a retiring Army General becoming a millionaire overnight and having full salary for life. So, with the disappearance of the marketing boards and the arrival of more money, the Generals shared the whole money and went back and handed government to civilians of surrogates and puppets. They nominated their surrogates to contest elections to occupy elective offices, so that they would continue to plunder the country. Things degenerated to a level where the citizens of the country were suffering in abject poverty in the midst of plenty.
There is wealth in the country, there are facilities, there is the manpower, but nothing is functioning. Every attention is concentrated on oil wealth and who will control the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), because it is the hen that lays the golden egg. That is why we have military president in a civilian uniform. It is true that he was elected, but it is the same military man, who as a dictator, overthrew a democratically-elected government in 1983 that turned back to be elected a civilian President in 2015.
And when he got into office, he started executing his own agenda. First of all, the key place where the oil comes from, he took over the ministry himself and removed the key officers in the Petroleum ministry and replaced them with people from his village, people from his tribe and people from his area to make sure that he controls the economy of the country.
The people of the country are calling for a meeting to restructure the country, to re-plan the economy, to speak on how the people who produce the eggs should be allowed to take part when the egg is on the table and the powers said, this would not happen. Now, they conduct elections and since the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is controlled by him, election results are announced at his wish. So, the country is going down. The people are suffering. It is only one section of the country that are happy in this country at the moment. To them, the country belongs to them; every other section is a slave.
On the religious side, they have released a group to spread Islam by force, while pretending to use cattle to set up colonies. These herdsmen kill people as they kill rabbits and nobody asks. They are trained to use sophisticated arms and nobody cares. They use the arms to kill people at will. They went to a college and abducted some girls, who they took to their camp and converted those who were not Muslims and the girls, because of fear, agreed to convert.
One girl refused to convert and stuck to her faith. They released the other girls and refused to release the girl. Isn’t this an international crime? Isn’t this an offence in impunity? So, with me, as the only nationalist still alive, I cannot be happy, because the house I helped in building is being put asunder by people who knew not what we suffered.
Is it right to say that the present clamour for restructuring is to take the country back to pre-colonial constitution?
I am not aware that there is a clamour for pre-colonial constitution. There is the 1963 constitution, which was the constitution written by the people of this country. I don’t think those calling for restructuring are asking for the 1963 Constitution or any other constitution. Talking about it, they are saying, ‘let’s come together. Restructuring is not about a new constitution; it is about what we want.
For instance, every month, people go to Abuja for an allocation in order to function. The people are saying, ‘how do we grow the country, how do we ensure that the revenue works for us, a means that will make it possible for equality in states and to give people a sense of responsibility?’The whole Southeast, South-South, Middle Belt, Southwest and about 60 per cent of the North are calling for this restructuring and one part of the north, represented by one man in Aso Rock, said this would not happen.
So, are you saying that Nigeria is yet to make some progress, 58 years after?
Yes, we have not made any progress. But you can say that we have made progress in perfecting looting and corruption.
What is the way out?
The Federal Government should do the will of the people to make them happy. The people need to meet and plan a new country, what we have now is not a true country. The people want to meet. That is what 80 per cent of Nigerians want.
During your time, was there anything like godfatherism in politics?
There was no godfatherism during my era. For example, I won election on merit. I was elected a member of parliament at the age of 29 and the person I defeated was the first lawyer produced in Onitsha (Muojekwu of Nnewi) and he was a sitting member of parliament. I came out to contest against him and the people voted for me, because I was a nationalist.
In those days, people considered you on merit. I was a nationalist and they said, ‘this is the man who suffered for this country, the man who went to prison for the country. He is a better person,’ and so it happened in other parts of the country. There was nothing like godfatherism. I won election twice to the parliament. I had no godfather. They considered me on merit, I was elected unopposed for my second term. There were rich men in the country, but the people were not interested in who you were, but on what you had done for the country.
How do we get out of godfatherism in the polity?
It is part of the spoliation, which we have in the country. It is part of the destruction of what founders built. It started from the military rule.Military men acquired so much wealth. So, when they went back and started projecting those they would use to continue their dominance. It is not easy to dislodge them, particularly now that they have acquired so much wealth and influence.
What do you think is the problem of the country? Is it the constitution or individuals?
It is a combination of both. The constitution determines how a country should be ruled. If there is a defect in the constitution, it will reflect in the government and administration of the country, as it would affect the running of the government and in the long run, affect the citizenry. So, it is a combination of both. A bad constitution constitutes a bad government and a bad government affects the people and development.
How can we get it right in politics?
What is the health condition of the country? The position is that the strong are getting stronger and the weak, weaker. The rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Take, for instance, the fight against stealing and looting and corruption. Two agencies were created- the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Now tell me, since 1979, how many governments officials have been arrested and charged to court and convicted? Have any of the governors been convicted? Have any of these government officials been convicted?
The governors are still the same people making laws for you in the senate. So, it is not easy to change the system. But like the monkey pox, it will come and go. You see what is happening now, almost all the people who were charged and when the present government took over, they pretended to be fighting corruption and all them, who were accused of stealing, have decamped to the All Progressives Congress (APC).Since they have joined their party, you wouldn’t hear anymore about their trial. That is the situation. I believe that one day, God will intervene.
It was like this in Ghana until Jerry Rawlings took over. When he took over, he arrested all the corrupt leaders, lined them up and shot them. He was able to build a new Ghana and Ghana citizens, working as labourers in Nigeria, started going home and developed a bag called “Ghana must go.” They packed their property in those bags and left. One day, God will develop his own system and all the looters would disappear.
What has been the missing link in our leadership?
Those who have ruled us, particularly in the present era, are going in for what they can get out of the system. That is why you see people spending billions of naira in the guise of contesting elections. Look at the present election, for you to apply to your political party, declaration of intent, some political parties made N44 million, some N50 million and what have you. Mind you, this is not the actual election. Then, when you are nominated, you have to deposit several millions again before the election. Naturally, when you get in there, what you will do is to recover the money you spent and to make money on it to fight for the next election. So, people who should control looting, stealing and corruption are the ones institutionalising them.
Is zoning of power part of the solution to Nigeria’s problem?
In Nigeria, people talk about power and zoning. As a nationalist, I believe positions should be given to the best candidate; it should not be based on where the person comes from. That is why I belonged to the NCNC that elected an Hausa man, Mallam Umaru Atili as mayor of Enugu, because he was a member of the local chapter of the NCNC youths association. He ran for two terms. During our time, where you came from did not matter.
You went to parliament at the age of 29, how did you raise the funds?
I was receiving a salary of 50 pounds per month and you didn’t pay anything to the party in those days. If you were qualified, you applied. If you were nominated as the candidate of your party, the party took over the funding of your campaign. Very little money was involved. I was a salary earner and like I said earlier, the person I challenged and defeated was a lawyer, the very first lawyer produced in this area, but it didn’t matter. The rule in my party was that you must have been a member of the party for at least two years before you could be sponsored by the party in an election. These days, you see people lose primary in this party and the next day, you hear that they running election in another party. That is the problem; there is no principle, no ideology.
In our own time, immediately you were elected or appointed a minister, you signed an irrevocable authority with your banker to pay 10 per cent on the receipt of your salary to your political party. That was how our party was run and funded. Even members who were appointed to board, once they earned public money out of political patronage, they would pay 10 per cent of the money to the party.
At 29, you were making laws for the country. These days, young men at that age have no opportunity. Why is it so?
The whole thing is money; money is the driving force. It is the competition about who pays better. The way it is, it is very impossible for young people to rule this country, unless a young person is sponsored by a moneybag. It will continue to be a dream. I pity the youth, because I do not see them making any headway. Present day politics is structured for the rich. It does not matter which political party that has offered their platform or waved aside certain fees, election proper is money.
I succeeded as a young man, I was elected as a young man, I was given opportunity as a young man and I served the country as a young man. Therefore, I believe that young men who can do it should indeed be given opportunity to test their capacities and abilities. I will continue to shout over the system of things in this country. They don’t like me because I shout. I am about the only surviving Zikist. The government of my state does not recognise me. The government of Nigeria does not recognise me, because I speak the truth. They don’t care to know. The military abolished the teaching of History in Nigeria, because they do not want the people to know their atrocities, as it will unearth what they did. History will remember me as one who spoke against evil.
What is your take on Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its agitation?
IPOB is led by a young man; there is naturally the radicalism in the youth, but you have to examine what he is saying and not really how he is saying it. He says he wants a restoration of this oppressed side of the country. What I advocate is that this group is not launching any arms than making noise and complaining about their situation. A government of human beings, as it would happen in any part of the country, would listen to them and know what they want. If you want to prove whether that represents the opinion of the people of that area, you can call for a plebiscite. It happened in Britain years ago when Scotland wanted independence and when they were granted to go and do plebiscite, the people said they wanted to remain in Britain.
So, it is wrong for Ohanaeze and governments of the area to declare them unlawful and terrorist organisation. It is cowardice, a betrayal in the extreme and lack of wise leadership. If I were in the government, I would have told them to do a plebiscite and let the people vote on whether to leave or remain in Nigeria. I can assure you that majority will remain in Nigeria and that will settle the matter.If you go to Lagos, if you remove the indigenous natives and any other part of the country, the next indigenous settlers are Igbo. They own businesses and houses and I tell you, they won’t like to go home. So, our governors and Ohanaeze leadership did not use their common sense in handling the IPOB issue.
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