A member of the Southern Leaders Forum and second republic politician, Chief Guy Ikokwu, in this interview faults the recent assertion by former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, that it is impossible to restructure Nigeria. Ikokwu, who is a civil war hero, says restructuring the country has been ongoing since the 60s, noting that majority of Nigerians are not with Gowon on the issue.
How would you react to the recent statement by former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, that restructuring Nigeria is not possible on the ground that the country is composed of multiple ethnic nationalities that would not yield to each other in terms of concession of certain benefits?
You see, this is part of the problem we are getting in some quarters in this country. Some people would say that if you ask 10 Nigerians what they understand about restructuring, they would give you 10 answers. Even the government of today, which is controlled by the All Progressives Congress (APC), if you talk about restructuring, they will say they don’t know what it means even though they have it in their manifesto for election; they have to be taught. And you are talking of very mature people; people who are well educated and have been in positions of leadership for at least the last 20 years. That is why some of us have been unrelenting in telling the country what restructuring actually entails.
Now, restructuring started with Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, who jettisoned the federal structure for a unitary structure to suit the command and control structure of the military. When Gowon took over power, he further changed the system of governance when he felt that the country was going to break up. But Gowon at that critical moment when the country was going to go down in the 60s was called by Gen. Ankra of Ghana and advised that the Nigerian military should not plunge the country into a situation from which it may not recover. So, all our military generals and leaders in the army who were in control then agreed to go to Ghana and they went to a place called Aburi. In the end, they got what is called Aburi Accord, meaning that they wrote down exactly what they wanted and how they wanted the military, the political and civil areas to be restructured. Those who have not read the document of Aburi should read it; it is virtually in cognizance with most of the details of the restructuring we are talking about today.
But when they returned to Nigeria, they decided that it was not a matter just for the military. So, they agreed that civilian leaders in the country should be brought to a constitutional conference in Lagos, which had been scheduled so that they would see what the military people agreed in Ghana and look at it, amend it, endorse it and then have it as a new template for Nigeria to move forward. But this very Gowon was misadvised by the British and some of our super permanent secretaries, two or three of whom are still alive today and have seen what has become of the country in the last 50 years. So, Gowon cancelled that conference. It was from there that Nigeria started falling and falling to the extent that it is becoming difficult for the country to rise again and get to the top among the comity if nations.
Now, with military fiat, Gowon did his own restructuring and divided Nigeria into 12 states, six in the North and six in the South. From there we plunged into the civil war at the end of which we had other military leaders who further restructured the country up to the Abacha junta. Abacha called a conference; it was during that conference that the six geo-political zones structure, three in the North and three in the South, was adopted. The six-zone structure is now used mainly for sharing certain things. But that restructuring under Abacha was not given the constitutional teeth and powers, which a proper geo-political structure should have had. That’s why you don’t see it in the constitution with such powers. And Abacha did it for his own selfish interest being a master dictator.
Obasanjo came in as a civilian president and called his own conference and spent billions of naira. And everybody agreed at that conference on the new structure of Nigeria with more devolution of powers from the centre to the federating units. The report would have been sent to the National Assembly and endorsed and then resulting in constitutional amendments that would have given birth to a new polity, but Obasanjo attached a third term agenda to that resolution. But Obasanjo today is still equivocating like Gowon on this issue of restructuring because self-interest comes into it.
So you think Gowon misfired on the issue of restructuring?
It’s not a question of misfiring; he is not on at all. The majority of Nigerians don’t believe Gowon. The majority of his own ethnic nationality don’t believe him. Gowon is from Zaria: Gowon is a Christian; Gowon has been preaching around the whole country on religious tenets. But what is he doing about the killings in Southern Kaduna who are mainly Christians. What is he saying about the militarised herdsmen? Listen, more people have been killed in the Middle Belt, Gowon’s own area, than have been killed in the South. What is he doing about that?
Is that why you are saying that his people don’t believe him on this issue?
Of course his people don’t believe him. Before people will believe you, it’s not only that you will say the whole truth but you also try to implement the truth. Let Gowon who should not be fearful go to southern Zaria, where his father was a preacher, and tell them to stop killing his people. Let him see to it that the herdsmen that are using military weapons are disarmed and prosecuted. Has he ever said anything like that? So, what is he talking about restructuring? Can you compare Gowon to Bishop Hassan Kukah who is also from that area? Let Gowon open his mouth and talk on issues that affect his own ethnic nationality. I will talk without closing my eyes or whatever about anything that is odious against my own ethnic nationality, the Igbo. When the Igbo are doing right I will say they are doing right; when some Igbos are doing wrong, and there are many Igbos who are doing the wrong things, without blinking my eyes, I will say that what they are doing is antithetical, misleading and wrong.
This was why we allowed our young boys in MASSOB and IPOB to speak vociferously on issues affecting the South-east geo-political zone. We have a saying in our culture that when the mother hen sees that her little chicks are in danger of being killed by the hawk, she will not only start taking them into a shelter in the bush but will also continue shouting so that the outside world will hear her shouting that she may be bereaved. And anybody who hears that shouting and has a gun, bow or catapult will aim at that hawk and it will fly away. So, we allowed those boys to speak out. But we told them that what we the elders stay on the ground and see, if they climb an iroko tree, they won’t see it. That’s why we were telling them, ‘please don’t cross this red line’. I am one of those who proposed a red line and it was something like this – restructure the country, yes; Biafra today, no. Take a holistic count today and you will see that the vast majority of Igbos don’t want a geographical and territorial Biafra; they don’t. I don’t! It’s the truth and the truth must be told even though some people may be hurt. So, restructuring is actually a thesis to move Nigeria forward as the most populous Black country in the whole world. We are talking about 180 million people and there is no other place in the world where you have 180 million Blacks.
The agitation now is tilting towards a return to regional administration with some people saying that we should go back to the 1963 Constitution. Would you say that Gowon made a mistake when he balkanised Nigeria into 12 states?
For him that was a military strategy because we were then posed with such a crisis that might lead us into war and the war was actually at hand at that time. So, his advisers were trying to get a theory that will abate the easterners from getting any upper hand in any conflict.
Don’t you think that Gowon’s strategy to checkmate the Igbos by quashing the regional system and creating states is at the root of Nigeria’s problems today?
Yes, because it was not done through a constitutional arrangement; it was not debated. When you talk of restructuring, you must have a debate; you must have a holistic approach to it because there are various issues. You have to look at all of them and then see what will promote harmony within that diversity; you have to look at what is more beneficial to all the people.
Look, Nigeria would have been divided in the 50s and people would have long gone their separate ways. Our founding fathers looked at it over a period of time and it’s still a contentious problem today. Zik was one of those who said we must stay as one country, but under an equitable system that can keep us together because unity in diversity will pay us more in Africa and in the world. Our founding fathers then said what was more beneficial was to have semi-autonomy for the various aggregates of ethnic nationalities. They didn’t want a centre that is more powerful and higher than the federating units. So, at the time of our independence, it was the local governments, the regions and then the centre. Nigeria today is greater than the rest of the countries in West Africa. But we have to be big for something not big for nothing, as those small West African countries have tagged us. That is why we must restructure the country now.
But Gowon doesn’t understand it yet and other people of that calibre. When you sit down with them and talk to them, they will show understanding. But when they go out they have forgotten everything and the issue becomes politicised. That is why some people say that those who are calling for restructuring are political jobbers. But we are not looking for jobs; at my age I’m not looking for a job. But those who have jobs now in our unitary system of today, are they not the ones that are spoiling the economy? Instead of our economy sustaining us, we are borrowing. Borrowing for what? Who will pay the money you borrow? Our children’s children? Do you want them to become economic slaves?
The key question in this restructuring debate is what happens to the states and that is one of Gowon’s concerns. Do you think the existing state would be convinced to relinquish their status to pave way for a new governance arrangement?
I have said it quietly and privately to a lot of people that a restructured Nigeria today should not abolish the states. The powers of the Federal Government as listed in the Exclusive List should be reduced from 68 to just about 22. So, you can have a system where the zones or regions becomes the in-between umbrella that will stop the central government from interfering, disturbing and reducing the capacities of the lower tier. So, what needs to be done is to articulate the responsibilities of the zones. But the zones or regions will have fewer powers than the states. The powers the zones would have are just powers that would enable them to stop the central government from picking states one by one and destroying their viability. The regions will also be used to share positions and appointments.
So, when you fine-tune and reduce the authority of the Federal Government, governance will be easier and less costly. We should think of how to reduce our deficit. Once we restructure Nigeria, in the very first three years, we will be growing at four per cent annually. And thereafter, we can be growing at seven per cent. Why I’m saying this is because a restructured Nigeria will be able to move like Singapore. Singapore in 40 years moved from a third class nation to a first class nation. The GDP of Singapore is more than that of Britain and America. We want a Nigeria that will have high morals, high education and high productivity not high consumption.
What is your message to those who are still in doubt about on the issue of restructuring?
They are not in doubt; some of them have simply refused to take on the responsibility of leadership. That is the issue. They want to exist; they want to enjoy, but they don’t want to be perturbed. And they are doomed.
Let’s go back to nature. When you put the old yam seedling into the soil, it will germinate and you will put a stick to guide the tendril. As it grows, the seedling will decay and a new yam will form. After a few months, it will be ready for harvesting and when you dig the earth, you will find a solid, good yam tuber. That’s nature and nobody can dispute nature. So, if you want to be eating rotten yam, you don’t need to plant your yam seedling where it will grow. What I’m saying in essence is that it’s time to create a new system in Nigeria, which gives people their due to move forward. That is the restructuring we are talking about.
A chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Director General of Voice of Nigeria (VON), Mr Osita Okechukwu, in this interview, urges the National Assembly to repeal the Act establishing the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC). Okechukwu, who spoke against the outcome of the recently concluded local government elections in Enugu State, alleges that state governments are using the SIECs to undermine popular participation at local council elections, which is the hallmark of democracy. – The Sun.