The Chairman of the Northern Elders’ Forum and Minister of Steel in the Second Republic, Dr. Paul Unongo, says that some calls for restructuring are politically-motivated.
Why do you think calls for restructuring have become prevalent?
The tragedy of our country is that, sometimes, people mean well and will talk about serious issues that can help Nigeria. But some people will along the line introduce tribal sentiments to it in the name of politics. I feel that people who feel aggrieved with the present administration headed by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and who feel that the last administration was forced out started agitating for all sorts of things, so that all the sins of Nigeria would become the sins of Buhari. They are capitalising on his illness; and his perceived non-performance. I always tell my friends that they should define what they mean by restructuring. If they state what they mean, they will notice that we’ve been struggling with that issue. It is an issue that has to do with reviewing how we are staying together as a people so that every group within this country to a large extent will feel happy and have a sense of belonging. There won’t be agitations if everybody can work and allow true patriotism to grow. This country will never develop when people are insisting that the president of the country must come from their community, because the people who get into power will still annihilate themselves. They won’t help their tribesmen. But some Nigerians are so dull; they fail to notice such things. They take such deceit and misunderstanding to sections. The practice now is that, if you come from the North, you help northerners. If you come from the West, you’re supposed to help westerners. If you come from the East, you’re supposed to help only the easterners. This is wrong.
How will you define restructuring?
We struggled with this issue at the London Constitutional Conference. The late Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhammed selected 60 of us, including the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to discuss the modern Nigeria and the militarisation of the political process. Murtala (Muhammed) talked to us about the type of Nigeria he wanted; he wanted to develop an African model that would run our government. He was of the view that the African continent should not be depending on the developed nations while each nation of Africa should have decentralised power. We all felt at that time that the parliamentary system which we inherited from the British, had failed. So, Murtala assembled us and said, “I charge you to draft a constitution that will encompass all the African ideals of ‘my brother’s keeper’ and accepting somebody’s leadership not because he has money but he being the overall head, like we have in our African system.” I think I was the first to speak and I said, “Mr. Head of State, if this is what you called us for, the thing exists already. The United States of America fought a war against the colonial masters, defeated Britain, and decreed a type of government for themselves, which they tried to make different from the British. The US presidential system catered for the numerous interest groups, the social and tribal tendencies in America.”
We said we will look at the proposal of Murtala and that we were capable of producing something completely new or tincture a little bit of the American system to suit our own needs. This was how we brought about the constitution of 1979. Great thinkers and great people wrote papers. I think I did about four papers.
How do you respond to critics of the restructuring agenda?
We must restructure the country. We practised the all-inclusive parliamentary system of government and, in terms of cost of governance alone, it is necessary for Nigerians to be allowed to take a look at how they have fared so far. We should see whether we devoted a lot of resources to running the government or improving the lives of our people. I think we’ve spent too much money running the institutions and structures of government. From there, we can sit down and discuss what type of government is the best for us. Maybe a little bit of the parliamentary system plus a little bit of the presidential system. And this is why I’ve always rejected the implementation of what (former President Goodluck) Jonathan called his friends to draft in 2014, so that now that we have a National Assembly in place, the Assembly would implement it. It cannot address the problem of Nigeria.
What do you think of fiscal federalism?
If we say everybody should keep all the money that is found in their own state, under the guise of true federalism, I’m quite sure that arrangement will still not suit Nigerians. We will have to revert to the same system that we are practising now. I think we have tinkered too much with the constitution. Let’s give the constituents, the sovereign people of Nigeria the opportunity to discuss this. I believe Nigerians are super-capable; they will fashion out a constitution that is not forced on them by the military. We are not saying that the young people that are now in the parliament are not knowledgeable or qualified to amend the military constitution. But, I think it is best that those talking about restructuring should consider also a sovereign national conference and there should be honesty. And it can be done. Nigerians want to stay together, but when politicians lose elections, lose money or commit crimes and are being pursued to ‘return the money they stole,’ they gather and give the impression that this is the worst country or government on earth. It is not true. We in this country need to talk to ourselves.
We need to ask questions. We tried this one (democracy), we tried the military, but first we tried the British colonial system. We tried our own so-called democratic system, the parliamentary system, which we inherited from the British. I believe if we had allowed it to stay, it would have settled all the agitations that we have now. But the military interrupted the political process and I think it was the greatest misfortune of this country. From that time till today, money has taken over patriotism, commitment, Africanism, and so on. The Awolowos, Azikiwes and so on of yesterday, who compared creditably with all other men in Africa that were freedom fighters, don’t exist anymore. Everybody is at one another’s throat, looking for more money and you hear people looting incredible sums of money from the treasury for themselves. This is not the essence of a nation-state.
How do you view the Buhari government’s move to restructure?
I believe that if these people are sincere about the issue of restructuring, I think they should give it to the Nigerian people, not out of fear, because Nigerians want to stay together. Most educated Nigerians know the meaning of being big in the international community. You can see how huge even Russia is. It is the biggest country on earth; look at them trying to acquire Crimea. The US is important because it is very big. I believe we cannot afford to break up and I think that nobody sincerely wants to. We need to discuss all these things in a straight forward and free manner under a democratic, sovereign national conference. Everything should be on the table for us, Nigerians, including those ones who were privileged to see how our elders did it. I was privileged to see Dr. (Nnamdi) Aziwike, Awolowo and Joseph Tarka. I saw the Aminu Kanos, and so on.
Nigeria is a great nation. It is not a nation, in terms of the physical definition of the word ‘nation.’ A nation is composed of one nationality. But that should be an advantage. That is why the US is great. If the white man can make it in America, I believe we have not been given Nigerians a chance. Nigerians are capable of writing their constitution without a gun being pointed to their heads by the military. This military-imposed constitution is difficult to operate. I participated in it four times. I believe that, now that we have a semi-military, so-called democracy, we should summon Nigerians to discuss instead of wasting money by organising a national conference which to me, is a waste (of money). But this time, it is not a talking shop; call a sovereign conference whose decisions would be automatically implemented and this country will become great.
None of us wants to go away from this wonderful Nigeria. Give Nigerians a chance to discuss freely what they think they should make of their own nation. They should determine the type of nation they want and this can only be done in a sovereign national conference. There should be a truly representative of the people of Nigeria who shouldn’t be imposed or handpicked. It shouldn’t be a question of ‘my friends, come, and I will give you N6m in one month. So, this is how I want Nigeria to be.’ Nobody has a monopoly of knowledge.
Where do you stand on resource control?
I think we have reached a stage now that we should not be afraid of this country and its people. Give the people a chance to discover the type of relationship they want to have. We can only get that, not through shouting about restructuring. We found oil in a place Nigerians named South-South. Is that what the people want? Should they keep their oil? Of course, if they want to keep it, they should keep it.
It was cocoa in the West. When they were keeping it, did the Federal Government not tax it? It was hides and skin and groundnuts in the North. Didn’t the Federal Government get part of it (proceeds)? Those are not the issues. The issues are that, for God’s sake, the rulers and the big men in power should do us a favour: Allow Nigerians, as honest human beings that can fashion out their own togetherness, to have a sovereign national conference. Then, I can assure you that we will sort Nigeria out. There are enough brains. Now, we have so many young men that are educated and there is this fantastic thing that is called explosion in information technology. We can access any kind of knowledge and there are enough of Nigerians that can interpret it for us who are not educated enough. I think we should trust Nigerians; that is my appeal.
Do you think restructuring will increase the chances of a Middle Belt president?
I don’t know what a Middle Belt president is, but let me give you a simple example. I come from what I canvass as Middle Belt. I was the secretary to the late Joseph Tarka. In the last constitutional 1967/68 conference, I claimed that I was the one who wrote the position of Tarka, President of the United Middle Belt Congress, without anybody adding anything to it. We knew precisely what we wanted. The Northern Region, we felt, was too big, and not out of fear of anybody or hatred for the Hausa/Fulani as people are pushing today. Our Middle Belt cut across the middle of Nigeria, which included people of Nupe, Igala, Gwari, majority of whom are Muslim We have the Idoma, Tiv, who are almost 100 per cent Christian. It also included part of Adamawa State today, where we have plenty of Muslims and Fulani. Some of them were with us in the struggle. We felt that the British people cheated us by dividing the country into three unequal parts for a definite reason. We argued that they did it so that we can continuously fight one another and keep accusing each other of marginalisation. So, we said, ‘Britain, please, break up the North into two, so that we can have a more stable foundation to build a stable country on it.’ The minister in charge of finance in the Northern Region then was from the Middle Belt and we were not thinking about telling him to go to change his religion. The people that are talking about Middle Belt did not even know what we started. We didn’t intend to divide the people on the basis of race or religion, which unfortunately, this is what people are advocating today. – Culled from Punch.