June 15, 2009

Stop war, negotiate with militants — Mbu

By Okey Nderibe, Assistant Political Editor
FORMER Chairman of South-South Peoples Assembly (SSPA) Ambassador  Matthew Tawo Mbu, the Otu Agrinya of Boki land in Cross River State  is not only  an elder statesman but also a lawyer and diplomat who could  be described as one of the few nationalists of the first republic.   Although he has a string of honorary doctorate degrees, he likes to remind you that he only treasures the one he sweated for; a doctorate in law.

From the tender age of 23 when he joined the federal cabinet, many still see his him as a living encyclopedia on Nigeria’s political history since he was actively involved in the events that shaped the nation’s early political life. Mbu was Federal Minister of Labour 1952-1954; Ag. Federal Minister of Works 1954; Ag. Minister of Commerce and Industries 1954-1955; Ag. Federal Minister of Works 1955; Minister of State, Office of the Prime Minister 1960; Minister of Defence ( Navy) 1961-1965; First Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK; first Nigerian Chief Representative to Washington DC, USA; First Nigerian Chief Representative in the United Nations and Secretary for External Affairs, Interim National Government, 1993.

He was also the National Treasurer of National Convention of Nigeria and Cameroons ( NCNC). He was the National Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Peoples Party ( NPP) during the second republic. He spoke with Vanguard on many national issues.  Excerpts:

How do you assess the recent increase in the tempo of political activities across the country as a build up towards the 2011 general election?

I would like to quote the Chinese saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Ekiti was that single step which was supposed to   indicate that Nigeria can conduct credible elections. If credible elections had been conducted in Ekiti, then there would be hope for credible elections in 2011.

That would have  meant that we would  have elections without turmoil,  misunderstanding and too much litigations. We ought to have  proved ourselves mature enough in conducting credible polls.

What do you have to say about  speculations that the North intends to cling on to power for at least another eight years post 2011?

Ambassador Matthew Tawo Mbu

Ambassador Matthew Tawo Mbu

You have said it all that they are mere speculations that do not really amount to an opinion. But  let the constitution be respected. What does the Constitution say? We in the South-South prior and up to the 2006 convention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)  actively campaigned on the need to have a Southern President and that Southern President should come from the South-South region of the country which has never produced a president. But things went wrong. We failed.

This was because those we thought should help us failed us.  That was why we failed.  We worked very hard and had the people with us. The issue then was justice, equity and fairness. These were the facts on the ground. And that was that the South-South zone was qualified to be considered for producing an executive President. That, we could have done. But that was not to be. What some of us believe was that what some of our members were a let down..

Could you react to accusation in some quarters that the Southern Leaders Forum failed because it was used by former President Olusegun  Obasanjo’s administration in its attempt to actualise the third term agenda?

That is not correct. We in South-South Peoples Assembly ( SSPA) made it quite clear that we stood by the 1999 constitution. And unless that Constitution was changed as provided for in that instrument, we would not accept anything other a constitutionally elected government to succeed  Chief Obasanjo rather than Obasanjo to succeed himself. We made it clear that we would adhere to the 1999 constitution and that any amendment must conform to the provisions of the constitution. Anything short of that was unacceptable to SSPA. So, how  could anybody say we were used by any group when we did not accept anything outside the 1999 Constitution.

What do you have to say about  efforts to amend the constitution by the National Assembly despite the bickering between the House of Representatives and the Senate?

The constitution provides that 2/3 of the membership of the National Assembly must endorse any amendment to the constitution before the process can advance. But I don’t know whether an amendment to a constitution is tantamount to re-writing the constitution.

Members of the national Assembly cannot just sit down and give Nigeria a new constitution as some of them have been pretending even though they don’t have the real mandate of the people. They have limited powers. The power they have in that Constitution is anchored on their ability to have 2/3 support of the membership. The amendment process also has to be endorsed by 2/3 of the  state houses of assembly in the country.

Could you specifically  comment on the feud between members of the Senate and the House of Representatives within the National Assembly’s Joint Constitution Review Committee?

Let them address the issue that needs to be addressed and the issue is that the constitution needs to be amended. They should also tell the nation what they want to amend so that they can carry the people along. But quarelling over who should sit on one committee or the other or over how many chairman we should have is absolute nonsense. What they are doing is not the issue.

The issue is that they have a job to do, so they should go ahead and do it. If their mandate is not adequate, they should seek the opinion of the Nigerian electorate to give them the power either through a referendum, plebiscite or election empowering the next National Assembly to amend the Constitution.

They also have the option of carrying the exercise through a Constituent Assembly as demanded by the Patriots. The Patriots wrote and sent copies of what should be the ideal Constitution of Nigeria to the National Assembly. But they have not used any of these avenues to re-write or amend the constitution. What do they want to achieve? What do they want to do? Time is going and they keep on bickering. That is not enough.

What is your comment on the report of the Electoral Reform Committee which has  been submitted to the Federal Government ?

I don’t know what the National Assembly will do now that the President has sent seven bills regarding electoral reforms to be passed into law. The whole nation is anxious to know what amendment we are talking about and what  the National Assembly will do with the bills the President has sent to them. What are we saying about constitutional amendment if there is no reform of the electoral law? We would continue to have major problems with the constitution if something is not done about our electoral laws. The constitution has not been respected.

Do you see those bills as a reflection of what the President intends to do within the electoral system?

What we must do is to follow the pattern of other civilised countries around the world who operate have written constitutions. Giving too much powers to the executive could lead to abuse. This is why we have a federal constitution.. That federal constitution is supposed to respect the doctrine of separation of powers.

The executive, legislature and judiciary should carry out their functions unimpeded, but in Nigeria there is so much interference based on what we have seen and witnessed in recent times. I hope that Nigeria should not be an exception.  We need to know what others are doing? What does South Africa do to appoint an independent chairman for their electoral commission? What does Ghana do?  There is a saying that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the executive has too much powers, it is bound to become corrupt.

What would you say about President YarAdua’s performance regarding power and the Niger Delta crisis which are  two key areas in his seven point agenda?

The issue of the crisis in the  Niger Delta which you have mentioned is very controversial. The Niger Delta problem has so many facades which must be addressed. The first is: Will those who are loudest in criticising  the Federal Government that much has not been done in the region  agree  that this is responsible for the near-anarchy and militancy in the zone?  Or would you agree  that the popular fallacy that  those who are the loudest self-appointed speakers or critics  for the people are not entirely sincere?

They have their own agenda..  Why can’t we reach out possibly to the militants so that we can talk to them?  Let them say who would represent them in a peace conference we need to organise. They need to name those they trust or send an envoy to such a conference with alternatives. Otherwise all the efforts of the six governors in getting together and working together will come to no fruition if there is no peace in the zone. Peace is a pre-requisite for any development in the zone. Peace is the answer to all that the militants themselves would need.

That is what they dream of. That is what they want done. What they need could be achieved only through peace and not through war. War, war and war can only lead to chaos, more killings and more hardship and those who are supposed to come and help within and outside will run away for their dear lives. What are we gaining ? Why can’t we ask the Federal Government to enlarge the scope of the amnesty?  Why can’t we encourage the militants to name their leaders.

What is your reaction to the recommendations of the Niger Delta Technical Committee especially as it concerns increment in the percentage of the revenue allocated to the region based on the derivation formula and the release of the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) Henry Okah?

There is nothing new in all that. Speaking on the derivation principle, I recall that we discussed this matter at the Constitutional Conference that was organised by the administration of former President  Obasanjo as a platform to ventilate our feelings.

It got to a point where we discussed the issue of whether we could get 25 percent of revenue allocated to the region based on the derivation principle and gradually increase it  to 50 percent based on what prevailed  during the days of the big three the late Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Sardauna of Sokoto. The derivation principle was based on what each region produced and we agreed that the Niger Delta region should not be made to suffer since it is the region that produces the oil which drives the Nigerian economy.

That the region  should benefit from it. We argued and it got to a point when we were demanding for 18 percent.  I believe the demand for 18 percent would have sailed through but for the attitude of some of our people. Some of these  people from the Niger Delta truncated that move. And how did this happen? It happened due to disagreements and quarrelsomeness. Use of abusive language.

Some demanded that we should stage a walk out and I asked for what ?  So, that was how we went back again to 13 percent. We lost the opportunity of increasing the percentage to even 15 percent. Once again I propose that the militants should be reached through their own envoys for negotiations to hold. Of course when going into negotiations, they must bear in mind that they cannot have their way fully. It has to be a game of give and take. We are part of the federation and therefore we cannot take all.

We need to decided how much of it will goes to the federation and how much   the state is going to take and how much of  it would go to the oil producing communities to get them involved in exploration and exploitation of the resources of the region. The people of the region must be given some form of participation and a certain percentage; not entire control.  I think we are misunderstood when we talk of resource control.

It would have been better if we had talked of resource management. And how do you manage these resources and provide for the oil producing communities and the federation?  That’s where I think the disparity arose.  Many think that the people of the South-South are so greedy and they want to take everything. No, we are only talking of equitable sharing of these resources that would benefit the people who are exposed to environmental degradation who have lost their fishing industry; who have lost everything.

Something must be done to assuage these people who have been at the receiving end. It cannot be said that we were demanding too much. What we are demanding is justice, equity and fair play. That was the stand of the Niger Delta. Those who were so critical of everything preferred to have the child thrown out with the bath water. How can you say that because the child is too dirty, after bathing the child, you throw it away with the bath water?

What is your view on the position common among some Northern leaders that the agitation for resource control is not justifiable since some leaders of the Niger Delta have been wasteful in their management of revenue allocated to the region ?

What I have to say is that if accountability is a requisite in Nigeria then it should be applicable to all tiers of government including the state and local governments and the individuals heading public institutions. Why should this type of argument be only applied to leaders of the Niger Delta ? Are they the only wasteful ones?  Are those who are making these arguments not also wasteful? Are they not guilty of the same offence which is that of diversion of resources ? Or is it the quantum of diversion that matters?

Maybe it is the quantum they are complaining about?

No, it should not be about the quantum. Are you saying that somebody who steals one naira is not a thief? All thieves are regarded as the same in law.

The question the North has posed is that how can the nation be assured that if increased revenue is allocated to the Niger Delta region,  it would not end up in the pockets of wasteful leaders?

Who are those asking this question to judge? What do the northern leaders do with the revenue   that is allocated to the northern states? Don’t they also steal or divert  funds to other purposes other than the welfare of their people?

So if that is a requirement in the governance of Nigeria let it apply to all and sundry. That argument should not be targeted at the South-South zone alone because those in government in the rest of the country are not angels.

What is your reaction to the spate of religious violence which has erupted in several parts of the country  in recent times?

My view is very clear. Religious bigotry does not help any nation. What has happened to Ireland should be a lesson to us. Ireland fought a religious war for over 30 years and it even goes back into their history. They  fought for a long time. Since the Catholics and Anglicans of that country stopped fighting and opted to live together as a nation, they are making progress. Today, Ireland is  the second richest country in the European Union. They couldn’t have achieved such success without stability. And if religious bigotry was still persisting in that country,  its economy would not grow.

But today they are on the path of progress because they have decided to follow the path of peace rather than war, war, which does not help anybody. The bigots should be told to sheathe their swords and live side by side with other Nigerians. They should practice their own religion and allow others to practice theirs as the constitution prescribes. You should not force anybody to accept your religion or go along with you. That is religious bigotry. Let the governments of the affected states recognise these threats and punish those involved in these occasional riots severely so that it would serve as a deterrent to others.

What is your view about the political situation in the South-West against the background of recent happenings in Ekiti, Osun and Ogun states where either inter or intra- party squabbles for power seem to have raised the political temperature by several degrees?

My view is that the people of the South-West should not remind us about what happened during operation wetie which occurred between 1964 and 1965 in the First Republic. This led to the first military coup in Nigeria in 1966. They should not let the political turmoil of that period  be repeated. They should not allow Nigeria to go back to that dark era of operation wetie. What was operation wetie all about. It was due to election rigging.

Who is to blame if this same election rigging which led to the collapse of the First Republic is rearing its ugly head again many years after it manifested the first time?

All those involved in the political process  should stop it and follow the constitution. Let those presiding over elections have the courage to carry out their functions regardless of the consequences.

What is your view on the controversy surrounding the tenure of INEC Chairman Prof. Maurice Iwu ?

The debate on the tenure of the Chairman of INEC has been going on for long. I would not like to wear his shoes. If I wear his shoes, I would know what is the honourable thing  to do. I won’t need anybody to tell me what to do. But he has the shoes and he is wearing them. If it fits or doesn’t fit him the way he sees it, it is up to him. The decision is his. There is no doubt that those who appointed him into that position had purpose. Let Maurice Iwu act according to his own conscience.

But this debate began after his widely criticised handling of the 2007 general election?

The handwriting on the wall is clear for Iwu. If he was appointed to render service to this country, the question that arises is whether he has rendered that service?

But Iwu has consistently insisted that he rendered the service he was appointed to render ?

Oh, but he cannot be a judge in his own case. Can you be a judge, jury, complainant and defendant at the same time? That does not fit the law. It is not the law. But it is up to him. I wouldn’t like to be in his type of position whereby the newspapers publish  my name everyday. If it is  so good or so bad?

Could you comment on the fact that  a good number of the results of the election he supervised have been nullified by the courts ?

It is still  up to him. The ball is right in his court; And not in the court of those who appointed him.