Chief Sola Ebiseni is a Lawyer and former Chairman of old Ilaje/Ese Odo Local Government in Ondo State. He has also been a three- time Commissioner in the state and currently a delegate to the ongoing national conference in Abuja. In this interview with Journalists, he shares views on the conference saying that the 1999 constitution is grossly flawed. Excerpts:
You position on the floor of the National Conference that oil was first discovered in Ondo state and not Oloibiri as popularly believed was controversial. Can you shed more light on this?
I wasn’t saying a new thing but making a statement of fact that oil was first discovered in Nigeria at Araromi in the present Ilaje Local Government in 1908 by a German company whose pioneer achievement was truncated by the world wars, Nigeria being a protectorate of Britain to which Germany and its interests were enemy.
The discovery however encouraged further exploration east of the Niger Delta after the wars culminating in the further discovery and exploitation in commercial quantity at Olobiri in present Bayelsa state in 1956/1957. The first law regulating oil and gas activities in Nigeria was the Nigerian Oil Minerals Ordinance of 1914. It stands to reason that, that law could not have been made to regulate Olobiri of 1956.
The reason we have to emphasize this point is that the Ilaje and the Ijaws of Apoi and Arogbo and Ondo state in general have been subjected to environmental degradation as a result of oil and gas activities perhaps for a longer period than any other part of Nigeria.
Let me reiterate the point I made on the floor that the National Conference could not have come at a better time than this and that everything about this country as evident even in the historic speech of Mr. President, is an issue here. As we say in law and is commonsensical too, you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand.
If the foundation of the nation as presented by its ground norm be destroyed, even the most righteous of its administrators or leaders will be faced with destructive but avoidable challenges. Apart from claiming legitimacy by falsely pretending in its preamble to be given by the people, it also claims to enact a federal system when its products, for all intents and purposes, is regimental unitarism.
It frustrates healthy national competition necessary for growth and encourages beggarly and dependent economy. It arbitrarily creates institutions and allocates benefits with impunity. It treats equals unequally and makes itself a crude and cruel source of oppression and engenders national discord as natural by-products.
In specific terms, what are these areas?
What I have said are specific enough. Is it not true that the constitution, contrary to its claim was given by the military and not the people? Will you truly say that this is a Federal Republic when the Federal Government takes 100% of national resources and give handouts to the federating units? In very specific terms of impunity, I stated on the floor that one of the greatest evidence of injustice in the constitution is the local government system and I gave some statistics.
Lagos state which existed since 1967, having a population of almost 40% of the entire South West, has 20 local goverments. Osun state in the same geo-political zone created in 1996 with a population perhaps not more than Alimoso, Mushin and Ikeja local governments in Lagos state have 30 local governments. Whereas Katsina was excised from Kaduna state, the remaining Kaduna which in both size and population is far larger has 23 local governments to Katsina’s 34. Bauchi is the most populous in the North East.
It has 20 LGAs while Borno in the same region has 27. Lagos and old Kano were at par in population in 1991. Jigawa was later carved out of Kano. Kano now has 44 and Jigawa 27 together having 71 while Lagos remains 20. Efforts by Lagos to create more was frustrated by this anachronistic constitution. Anambra with the highest population in South East has 21, but Imo in the same region has 27.
Kano, Jigawa and Katsina together have 105 while the whole of the South East has 95. You should also realize that these unjust and arbitrarily created Local Governments are also sources of unfair access to revenue from the federation account.
What is the way forward?
That was why I said all issues should be put on the table for discussion. In a true federal state, local governments have no business being listed in the national constitution. Local governments are local and residual matters for the federating units. Let each state create as many as its resources could take. In the first republic, the North operated the emirate council system while in the West, it was the district council.
Will that not jeopardize the cries of the councils for autonomy?
When, why and how did the question of local government autonomy arise? There is a great deal of misconception and confusion created by unitarists in a supposed federal state. By autonomy, it is meant that state governments should not interfere in the administration of local governments but sincerely, the problems of local governments are caused by the constitution and the federal government. When I was chairman between 1991 and 1993, local governments enjoyed direct allocation from the federation account.
That was also the era of zero allocation when several local governments had no money enough even to pay primary school teachers’ salaries. Nigerian Union of Teachers called nationwide strikes that lasted several months and paralyzed the councils and primary education.
These events and agitation culminated in the Joint Allocation Committee (JAC) where council allocations are first paid into a common account from where teachers’ salaries are first deducted before the balance is shared among the councils irrespective of their number of teachers.
This means that some councils particularly the rural ones are made to subsidize the urban ones to the extent that after also paying the council staff salaries and the political office holders, nothing much is left for the councils to execute projects.
In effect, what the councils and state governments share and administer is common poverty in our so-called federation where the federal government own all the resources and covetously appropriate 58% of the national revenue to the misery of the states and local governments where real service to the people abide.
As elected representatives of the people, shouldn’t the National Assembly be left to address these issues rather than convoke this national conference which many see as wasteful duplication?
These are strong sentiments but bereft of ideas on the reality of our national problems. In the first place, notwithstanding the resumption of civilian rule since 1999, the clamor for a conference of Nigerian people for restructuring of the polity continued unabated.
Secondly, as had been widely canvassed, the national and state assemblies are constituted to make laws which are meant to be consistent with the constitution which falsely claim to be made for the people and in this conference, on trial. Little wonder that between 2007 and 2011, this constitution has been amended about three times but in its innocuous and harmless parts without touching the fundamentals.
If for instance, it is the desire of the people to do away with bicameral legislature with members sitting part time on allowances, will you not be asking the National Assembly to be a judge in its own cause or planning a coup against itself to discuss these?
But the NASS is elected while membership of the National Conference is by appointment?
The wrong impression should not be given of any rivalry between the national legislature and the national conference. Their roles are different but potentially complementary. The roles and functions of the national assembly are explicit to make laws for the nation in accordance with the constitution.
The national conference is an extra-constitutional assembly of the Nigerian people to review our union and all its institutions without constraints. In the confab, there is no fear of party discipline or sanction, no fear of loss of party ticket if you fail to toe its line in a constitution interpreted by the supreme courtthat it is not the particular office holder that was voted for but its party.The Nigerian polity is evidently at the crossroads, almost on the precipice.
The national security is greatly challenged, crisis bothering on senseless killings and mutual destruction has seized a large part of the country, the educated, intelligent but jobless youths are almost on edge that a people revolution is virtually staring at us. Mr. President has been humble enough to see what perhaps Mubarak did not see or was not ready to admit which brought Egypt to where it is today.
The critical sectors of our nation have been assembled – ethnic nationalities – Afenifere original and renewal, Arewa Consultative Forum, Ohaneze Ndigbo, Kanuri, Ijaw National Congress, Urhobo, Middle Belt Forum, Itsekiri, Retired Military rulers and Officers, Police, other security agencies, state governments, former Local Government Chairmen, Women groups, the Press, Labour, Professional organizations, Civil society groups are all fully represented.
Mr. President has charged us to develop a new document of our national political relationship that is all inclusive towards relaunching a nation where no man is oppressed. Tell me, which sector or group in Nigeria is not being qualitatively represented in this extra constitutional Assembly meant to rescue our nation? Whatever be the outcome of this conference, history would have scored Jonathan high in having the rare combination of the virtues of humility and courage to face the challenges of his nation as a leader.
In the final analysis, what do we make of the report of this conference?
This will be determined between the National Conference and the Nigerian people. I have at plenary advocated a new constitution to be ratified in a referendum. Nigerians are intelligent and know what is good for them. The acceptability or legitimacy of the decision of the conference will be determined by its conformity with the people’s expectation.
The most acceptable decision of even the 1995 Abacha conference is the creation of 6 geopolitical zones. Even when it was not enshrined in the General Abdulsalami 1999 constitution, it remains the most acceptable platform of our national relationship or engagement. I propose a new constitution reenacting a Federal Republic in deed with powers and institutions devolved to the constituent federating units for the benefits of the people.
A situation where our states, which are bigger and have more resources than several countries sitting as sovereign states in the UN, are rendered prostrate by over concentration of powers at the center is unacceptable.