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The North built on mistakes of the South — Mbu

*Says the North took tribalism to another level

*Nigeria will continue to pay the price for
Nzeogwu coup

*How I proposed Alex Ekwueme to Shehu Shagari as vice president

He promised to make himself available and he did. For Matthew Tawo Mbu, life has been one experience he cherishes. In this concluding part of the interview, Mbu reveals how the North built on the mistakes of the South during the First Republic, taking everything it had learnt to a new level.

He also talks about his social life: “The girls took good note of me, especially in Lagos here. In fact, when I was appointed, some people wondered how this young bachelor would cope. But you know what, my engagement was announced to the whole world – it was announced that I had been engaged. Meanwhile, the person to whom I was engaged to, I did not even know. It was not until two weeks after the announcement that I came face to face with the person to whom I had been engaged.” Excerpts:

By Jide Ajani & Anthonia Onwuka

EIGHTY years!  How did you do it? Any secrets?
There’s no magic to it; none at all. It all depends on how the good Lord has destined you and if you still have the faculties functioning, there is no reason why you should not continue to serve and be of service to your people, whatever age you attain – that’s how I look at it.

If you ask, what is it that motivates you to continue? It’s the interest that you have to help the people. Fair share, fair play, equity in the distribution of the amenities that we have, especially those resources that we contribute, a contribution emanating from the location of our region, we ought to be a part of it and
I insist on that.

You said that much earlier.  One thing you did not quite explain was that at the National Political Reform Conference of Obasanjo, the South South did not get anything but it seems….
(Cuts in) Look the issue of derivation was debated almost up to a point of acrimony – that is the extent to which the two sides of the divide stretched the argument. We of the South South were absolutely unmoved by the lack of understanding of our brothers at the confab and we were not prepared to also yield.

They on the other side thought that we were uncompromising and that, they, too, were not going to yield and we foresaw a stalemate. In deed, we got to a stalemate I can tell you. They were offering nothing more than a one per cent increase and we said we would not accept that. Eventually we settled on five per cent increase, from 13 per cent to 18 per cent in the first instance; and that we might live with it for a while – because we were actually asking for 25 per cent, which would subsequently be increased to 50 per cent; and that, they were not prepared to accept. So, we, not to appear to be unreasonable, were prepared to settle on 18 per cent, as an interim measure, taking into consideration our minimum demand of 25 per cent in the interim and ultimately going to 50 per cent

At the end of the day lack of tact made you lose everything. Some people have pointed to this lack of tact in handling matters to be the greatest undoing of the leadership of the South South?

We were our own worst enemy at that conference. In our camp, we displayed the usual rascality, unreasonableness: we walked out.
You were also there, what did you do?
I asked the question: Walk out and get what? Something is on the floor and you’re asking us to walk out? They said walk out. Again I asked: walk out and do what? Take up arms against the Federal Government of Nigeria?

So when we walked out I again asked:  Now that we’ve walked out, you’ve thrown away the baby with the bath water and the bath towel, is that reasonable? So I said this is not the place for us to resolve this matter because we were outside so I suggested we retire to our place and have a full debate and I remember saying we now owe our supporters, those particularly at home, we have to give them good reasons why we walked out. It was then a communiqué was prepared, which I was principally an architect, to explain why we had to walk out, just to assuage the feelings of our people and supporters – that I did. That helped us to explain though, negligibly.

So you would have loved to stay back and accept the compromise position?
Yes, I would have not only loved to stay, but the conference was on. They’d accepted that already, it would have formed part of the conclusion; it would have been our achievement. But as it turned out, we left there empty-handed and we came back naked.

The reason why I asked that question is that some people see you as a pacifist on almost all issues, looking for a soft way out, that you’re not militant enough. Is it because of your background as a diplomat?
You see, people talk of pacification. What was there for us to be pacified? What was there for me to pacify anybody or be a pacifist? I have accepted the principle of derivation, which I said, was anchored from our leadership, the leadership of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, who accepted the principle of derivation. My position was and has always been that we should advance it. We should not change the game plan midstream; just because oil has come then we abandon derivation and pick on something else. That was my argument.

Principle of derivation
Is that pacification? Who was I pacifying? The principle had already been accepted and all I wanted was that we should improve on it and fine-tune it for the benefit of our people. We came out naked with nothing.

What a shame?
Shame! Those we looked upon as the crown leaders or the crown princes of the Nigerian leadership were not wrong when they agreed on that principle. When people talk about me being a diplomat, in diplomacy, we try to find suitable words to tell somebody you’re a lie because we just don’t say you’re a liar.

What we say is that ‘your statement is inaccurate in some material details’. But to call a gentleman a liar, as some crude, so called leaders of the South South would refer to me as a liar…But they are the ones with all the names, all the sobriquets, the controversial names in this world belong to them, leaders who have nothing good to say but to abuse others and whenever they open their mouth, it’s abuses, abuses and abuses.

But there are those who also said that the leadership of the South South should have based their agitation on the need for fiscal federalism, derivation, then being an aspect and not making derivation the focal point and then other things to follow?
Well, let me tell you that in advancing the issue of derivation, you’re also advancing the issue of fiscal federalism. Or did anybody tell you that I was ever opposed to fiscal federalism? If anybody tells you so then that person doesn’t understand the principle of fiscal federalism. Having a say in what is produced in your region, to me is fiscal federalism

It is believed in some quarters that that your approach seems more like begging…?
Begging who? If we accept to practice true fiscal federalism, whom do we have to beg? All of us are federating units and we’ve agreed to give part of our sovereignty to be a federation, isn’t it so?  So who is begging who?

The mere fact that we agreed to be part of a federation shows the extent to which you are willing to compromise part of your sovereignty otherwise we would have gone there as sovereign nations. But we didn’t go there as sovereign nations, we went there as federating units – to give and take. Give and take, that is the sense of federalism.

You talk about these our fathers, leaders of Nigeria at independence and some insist that they created the foundations for the type of country that we have today – tribalism, for example and the events in the Western House of Assembly.  Some say Azikiwe was merely outplayed, politically and others say….?

No!  You are not really…Permit me to interrupt you; you were not there. Zik won all, the majority, in the Western region. It was when he went to the East, that this notorious question, this notorious carpet-crossing, for the first time in our history was enacted on the floor of the Western House of Assembly. Before then, we never knew about carpet-crossing. Those who won on the platform of the NCNC were suddenly bought over by the Action Group.

But in an earlier interview with Pa Ayo Adebanjo, I was told that it was at the point when they said members of the different parties should move and sit separately, that it became obvious that AG members were more?

He would say so. What do you expect from him, he’s AG; he’s partisan. AG top notch!

It would be difficult for people not to say you are also being partisan, being of the NCNC?
The AG introduced, for the first time in our history, carpet crossing; I didn’t know about it. I wish the late Adelabu (PENKELEMSS) were alive. The leader of our movement in Ibadan, I wish he was alive, he would have told you what happened; he would have told you the drama that happened on the floor of the Western House of Assembly; the debacle, as he put it, the debacle of western election, so don’t tell me anything that I don’t know.

I know you know that’s why I’m asking you. For Nigerians who do not have a recollection of the events of that era and who talk about tribalism, they would want the records set straight.  Some even say had Zik stayed back, may be he would have fought it? And some even say that from that moment onwards, Nigeria lost it?

Yes, we lost it from that moment onwards. That was crude tribalism on display. That’s all. What else could it be that somebody of Eastern origin should come and control a region that belongs to the westerners? That was a clear display of tribalism, crude and that was when Nigeria lost it, the true sense of nationalism.  Yes! AG, NCNC, that I belonged to, were at opposing ends on true nationalism and nothing else. NCNC till tomorrow remains a nationalist party, one Nigeria, one people, one destiny. AG believed in one Yoruba, one nation, one Oduduwa.

When you look at the way some people accuse the North of holding unto power without wanting to let go, and the philosophy of Awolowo that before you can claim to be a Nigerian, you would have to first be either an Igbo, a Yoruba or Hausa?
Chief Awolowo never pretended and I have a lot of respect for him. He never for once pretended that he was a true nationalist. He was a true Yoruba leader – simplicita. And he never in any way felt ashamed about it. Yoruba for Yoruba, Hausa for Hausa and Igbo for Igbo – that was the way he felt and he never flinched.

The North learned a lot from the mistakes of the South and the way the tribal politics was being played, the North elevated it to another level. They reasoned that if tribalism was to become the name of the game, then they were ready to move it to the next level – the North for the North. The Sardauna would always say, ‘we of the North’, and he never pretended. His great grand father, Uthman Dan Fodio, was a conqueror of a greater community and why should he go for anything less. He, therefore, settled for a bigger North.

Could you please give examples of what the North learned from the South?
The North went and excelled in everything we did. We introduced thuggery, Michael Okpara called them party stalwarts in East, but they were thugs. Then the North recreated it, took it to another level: Why did we bring in the native police?  They were uncompromising in the North.

There in the North, if you were not of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, they would tell you, don’t cross, if you did they would kill you – and they meant it. Their own thuggery was worse and they took it to a level that was something else. So the only way to curb the excesses of the native police was to integrate them into the Nigeria Police Force, to train them, to shed them of the crude and excessive extra-legal powers. Not only that, you went to the native courts as a southerner, the Alkali courts.

A case was on, the judge was chewing his gworo and he slept off while the case was on, then he woke up and asked, ‘yes, what do you have to say; nothing. Okay go to jail for six months’. Meanwhile he had been sleeping all along-o. If you tried to argue you’re in trouble. ‘If you said anything there I’ll give you another six months; okay another six months, go’. Very crude! The North moved from one extremity to the other extremity and that’s where we are.

Back to NCNC, Zik and the East: What was done to NCNC and Zik in the West, Zik was not magnanimous too, when he went back to the East?
I do not think that you were born to understand the politics of those days.

We read?
It depends on what you have been reading and by whom? Look, the East was so democratic to a point where when the Onitsha issue came up, although a lot of it engendered by the opposition, led by the late chief justice of the East, Sir Louis Mbanefo, Onitsha market issue, there was a demonstration by the Onitsha people against the premiership of Zik, an Onitsha man, and I saw the father and I asked him: ‘Papa, you joined the delegation, too, to denounce the premier’? You know what he said to me in response?  He said: ‘He’s not one of us, being an Onitsha man, he should not oppose us’. That was the extent to which the people in the East understood democratic principles.

But an Efik was not allowed to lead in the East?
What was the problem of the Efik? They split. You were not born yet; you needed to be around with us then to understand what happened. UNIP was a splinter of the NCNC and they were to topple the leadership of the NCNC. UNIP was within the NCNC, led by, more or less, English trained graduates, leadership.

They were looking up on themselves as better educated than American trained graduates, led by Zik, Orizu, Mbadiwe and co – that is the truth. And who were the other groups? Graduates, Nwapa, Cambridge, make no mistake about it; Njoku, Manchester, London educated; my country man, Okoi Arikpo, London educated – London School of Economics; Ozoma; even Ita himself, having gotten his MA from Columbia University in the United States of America, came back and repeated the London MA so he used to be referred to as Prof. Eyo Ita, MA Columbia, MA London. They felt they were more educated and, therefore, a better bred to lead the new dispensation in the East; not this ill-bred American educated fellows from schools they did not recognize.

But Eyo Ita?
My friend, he was opposition, when you split against the leadership, then you are already taking up arms against the party. Must there be two premiers? It was Zik, in fact, who named him Prof. Don’t tell me what you did not witness.

About the military and incursion into Nigeria’s governance, some say had the military not stepped in, the carnage that would have continued would have been unimaginable. Others say the crisis would have resolved themselves?
I would never tell you what I don’t believe in. The interference of the military has never in one day helped Nigeria. If anything, it has complicated the Nigerian imbroglio; it has worsened it because those who led the coup, were never allowed to carry out what they had in mind. Nzeogwu and co, they were talking about reforms and anti-corruption, they wanted to reform the Nigerian society but they were not the ones who took over power, the wrong people took over and we have been paying the price for it and we may never ever know how much price we would have to pay for military incursion and we’re still paying for it and the complications and confusion started from that time.

The President has been out of the country for some two weeks now, Sections 144 and 145 talk about succession.
Somebody once said all religions, all the arts and sciences are all branches of the same tree. What I mean to tell you simply is that President Yar’Adua never sought power and he never wanted it. He, alone, understood why he did not want to be president. They imposed it on him and if anything goes wrong, I’ll rather blame those who imposed it on him, I won’t blame him. Whatever the reasons then, he didn’t want it, so why are you blaming the man. Secondly, we have a written constitution and unless we’re looking for trouble, let the constitution, please, please, be effected, if the eventuality should happen.

The constitution makes provision for somebody to act in a situation where the thing becomes vacant or in consequence of the president becoming incapable of performing the functions which he swore to an oath to perform. If the vice president is not there, the Senate president, if he’s not there, the speaker of the House, and if he’s not there, the chief justice, so there’s no vacuum. So, why are we arguing when there is no such vacuum in the constitution? Why are we engaged in really, crossing bridges when we haven’t reached them, imaginary bridges? Being a human being, he must have been subjected to intense pressure, family pressure, those above him, friends, interest groups. And believe me, from all we heard, the hierarchy in the north prevailed on him to accept it.

From the way you spoke earlier, if you were in Yar’Adua’s shoes, would anybody  have imposed such on you?
I don’t need to be in government to do certain things. Let me tell you, my good friend, Shehu Shagari, came on board as president. Do you know the person he wanted to be his vice president? It was I but we agreed that I might not be able to consent because I was in the Nigeria Peoples Party, NPP, while he was the presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. I told Shagari flatly that I could not accept the offer.

Was your rejection purely on principle or was it political?
It was a matter of principle firstly. Then there was the issue of me belonging to NPP. So do you expect me to leave my party because of the offer of the vice presidential slot? My people in NPP would kill me; they would say I had decamped. You know whom I suggested to him? Alex Ekwueme, to be his vice president! I told him that he had just lost nomination to Christian Onoh, your fellow party man. Shagari immediately responded that, ‘but I don’t know him, M T’.

Professional architect
I said it doesn’t matter; he’s a good hand, an intellectual, professional architect, use him and he will be a very good vice president to you’. Even Ekwueme did not know this at that time. It was here in my house, right here. I didn’t accept to be vice president because I belonged to another party and I did not want to compromise my position. I was a kingpin in NPP, they would have killed me. ‘Matthew has left us’? I just couldn’t accept. So, the issue is that I could not act against my conscience. I would rather live with my poverty.

What would you have loved to do that you did not do?
I would have loved to serve at a time like this when there is so much money.  The funds we received then at Ogoja Council, where I was, was 15,000 pounds sterling, that was the budget. I would have done so much because of the money they are receiving today. We had to travel to study then but the facilities around today are such that studying would have become much more intense.

On a lighter note, how was your social life in those days.  You looked quite handsome in your youth days?
Oh! It was something else. The girls took good note of me, especially in Lagos here. In fact, when I was appointed as minister, some people wondered how this young bachelor would cope. But you know what, my engagement was announced to the whole world – it was announced that I had been engaged. Meanwhile, the person to whom I was engaged to, I did not even know.  It was not until two weeks after the announcement that I came face to face with the person to whom I had been engaged.


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