BY GBENGA OKE
…Why we’re against SNC
Senator Iyorchia Ayu, former President of the Senate, former Minister and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in this interview with VANGUARD, bares his mind on major national issues ranging from calls for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), insecurity and the stewardship of affairs at the federal level and his native Benue State. Excerpts:
SOME eminent Nigerians have called for a Sovereign National Conference. Where do you stand on this?
I do not think a lot of Nigerians are calling for a Sovereign National Conference. I think a few Nigerians from one or two parts of the country essentially South-South and South-West are the ones, who have been propagating the need for a Sovereign National Conference.
It is this same group of people ,over the years, who believed that there should be a Sovereign National Conference because the Northern part of the country had dominated political leadership and as a result, in the case of the South-south, had deprived them of using their oil wealth to develop their own areas. In the case of the South-west, some of these intellectuals plus the few political leaders believe that the South-West, which usually consists of progressives ideologically, will advance faster if they had an independent nation.
Aggregation of ethnic nationalities
I believe the people calling for SNC do not represent the whole Nigeria and there are quite a lot of Nigerians including myself, who are opposed to what they call Sovereign National Conference, which is basically an aggregation of ethnic nationalities to sit down and discuss whether Nigeria should exist as it is or it should become a confederation or we go our separate ways.
I do not support aggregation of ethnic nationalities or the restructuring of Nigeria along ethnic nationalities because it is crass ignorance of the ethnic structure of Nigeria. The sociologists have a reasonable knowledge of over 500 different ethnic nationalities that exist in Nigeria. If you remove 10 major ethnic nationalities, there are some ethnic nationalities that cannot even constitute a local government. So, if you are restructuring Nigeria along the line of ethnic nationalities, you are not taking the interest of those small nationalities into account. So, I do not believe in what they call SNC.
So what do you believe in?
I believe that the National Assembly of this country can discuss the nature of the federation and make necessary constitutional amendment, which they have been making over the years. Most federations also do that. For the National Assembly, which is drawn from every part of this country, no matter how flawed the election is, they represent every part of the country and there are about 500 representatives in both chambers, who can discuss some of the issues like the nature of the federation. Secondly, there is over-centralization in certain areas, and these need to be addressed.
Poverty, nation’s biggest challenge
Today, the federation has grown to the extent that I do not see why the Federal Government, for example, will own federal government colleges, they should be returned to the states. Also, there is no agriculture taking place at the centre, states should be allowed to handle such issues. I think the biggest challenge with the federation today is poverty.
The recent figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics shows clearly that over 120 million of the 160million Nigerians are living below the poverty line and it is this massive poverty across the country that has grown phenomenally because the figures show that poverty has grown from 44 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2010.
While we have massive resources in the country, we have a tiny population of about two million enjoying stupendous wealth and we are leaving the gap between the rich and the poor to be expanding exponentially to the extent that today, the most populous country in Black Africa has almost 120 million of its citizens living below the poverty line.
It is this massive poverty in every department that is creating the unnecessary tension we are seeing today and if we must have a Conference at all, it must be issues or specifics- based conference that discusses how to tackle the issues of poverty at various levels – local government, state and in Nigeria as a whole.
If you look at other federations like Brazil, the two Southern states of Sao Paulo and the other one, the development of the country is coming from the Southern part. The North-West and North-East of Brazil just like in Nigeria are still in poverty even though oil is produced in the Northeastern part of Brazil. But they are addressing issues of poverty, housing and employment.
President Goodluck Jonathan has said that the policy measures drawn up to cushion the effects of the withdrawal of subsidy in petrol prices are no longer sustainable. How do you view this?
I think it is consistent with double speak of Nigerian leadership over the years. I am not talking of only President Jonathan, but generally the Nigerian leadership lacks foresight. It is a leadership that is not serious about tackling the problems of this country.
In Nigeria, nobody has told us the unit of production and distribution of oil, how much it costs to produce a litre of oil in our refineries, how much it costs to import a litre of oil from wherever into the Nigerian market. The recent controversy has shown clearly that the leadership of this country has been economical with the truth because figures released in other countries show that Nigeria has not been subsidizing anything for ordinary people.
If you take statistics from countries that have refineries, in Venezuela, fuel is about N5 per litre, in Saudi Arabia, it is about N17 per litre, in Kuwait, it is about N29 per litre. What we are paying here today or that has been imposed on us does not in anyway compare to any of the OPEC countries.
Neglecting our refineries
What has happened over the years, we have neglected our refineries, we are not really processing the crude for re-distribution because we have not done anything on the refineries. Every year we only have turn around maintenance.
So, it is a government that invests in telling lies; it is a government that is not genuinely interested in the Nigerian people, so at the end of the day, whatever figure they slap on you that this is the subsidy, you accept it. Why will a government increase fuel from N65 to N141? Where in the world is that acceptable?
I am not surprised that President Jonathan could come out to make such pronouncements. It is worrisome because it is supposed to be a democratically elected government, whose campaign slogan is to bring fresh air to Nigerians. Is this the fresh air we are seeing? This government is enslaving Nigerians and Nigerians have the responsibility to come together and have a political party that is interested in the welfare of Nigerians.
I don’t believe the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which I was a foundation member, as currently constituted, can tackle the problems of Nigeria. The leadership of the government, not just the president, but the entire PDP leadership is not providing anything for this country.
And its in-action and policies are bringing about this very issue of future disintegration of Nigeria because poverty has increased. I am a foundation member of PDP and served as minister, but I argued within the government against most of its policies but we had collective responsibilities, so you couldn’t come out and say you don’t agree.
I never agreed with privatization because if you think everything should be left to market forces, why do we need a governor, why don’t we privatize the government? And because of my opposition to it, I lost my first cabinet position in 2000 because of the manipulation or privatization process that was going on. So, what President Jonathan has done is consistent with the PDP and the current leadership of the party will run this country aground.
Do you agree with some that poverty is responsible for the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency?
It is almost obvious and by the figures released by Bureau of statistics, the two poorest parts of the country are the North-East and North-west zones. Any society that has that level of poverty will definitely provide fertile ground for recruitment of people who feel hopeless about their lives.
In the first place, we saw the militants in the Niger Delta area, there was a genuine reason for that and you can understand that, it was a direct result of poverty amidst enormous wealth. Government now reacted by taking oil revenues and directly spent on those militants who were carrying arms, even that alone could attract another part of the country. They may say if we are poor and nobody recognizes us, we will take up arms maybe we will get paid.
The Boko Haram in the North-East is a product of poverty; of course the international situation of terrorism is there.
But if that terrorism came in and there was nobody to recruit from, they wouldn’t have grown this rapidly. And if we look at it, this is not the first time certain part of the Islamic North have responded like this in a poor situation, we have seen it in the past during the Shagari era.
I am not saying it is the responsibility of the federal government alone, but what of the state government in those areas? There are no developments, so they create atmosphere for extremism. When you add that to the so called religious beliefs, it is very easy for people to call on certain religious sentiments and begin to recruit and carry out mayhem across the country.
I find it strange that Boko Haram has never stated what they stand for and if it is all about Islam, why are they killing Muslims? Because it not only non Muslims that are being killed in the attacks, they are targeting and killing Muslims too and I understand that under normal circumstances, Muslims don’t kill Muslims like that. So, I think if Nigeria addresses the issue of poverty, it will be very difficult for such movement to recruit so easily. I believe the Boko Haram issue will pass; but it can only pass if we address the massive poverty in those areas.
But it is argued that the Northern leaders held on for long to power without developing their area?
Well, there have been only two leaders from the North that were elected, who were accountable to the people. Tafawa Balewa and Alhaji Sheu Shagari.
Unfortunately, they never lasted in government. Tafawa Balewa was killed by the military and subsequent events are there for everybody as history of our country. Sheu Shagari after one term was again removed from office. The so called Northern leaders were all military people who took over power through coup d’état and it is in the history of military regime worldwide that they hardly develop their own countries or society.
I gave this example with the possible exception of a military in Brazil in the 1950’s who pushed for industrialization and the South Korean military leader who actually laid the basis for South Korean development between 1963 and 1980. If you take that out, whether it is a Pakistani military or the Nigerian military or any other military in the world, military regimes hardly develop their societies because they have no training in governance.
They only go there and rule by decrees and Pakistan is a good example because they broke away from India. Today, India is among the great countries and Pakistan is a failed state. So, I agree the military in Nigeria did not develop the North but they hardly developed any other part of the country. in the North.
Development in the South-west had its origin in the Action Group days which had clear articulated philosophy of development. There were laid down foundations for that development and even when military government came, some of those things continued to function.
As it is, it is now left for Northern leaders to sit down and address the issue of development in their individual states. Northern leaders need to know they have a responsibility to jumpstart development in the North the way other zones did, if they don’t do that, they will continue to be backward.
I quite agree Northern leaders need to address some developmental issues, but since 1999, we hardly had any Northern leader at the national leadership. Obasanjo did 8years and handed over to a sick Yar’Adua who was hardly in office, he lived virtually on hospital bed.
After that, Jonathan took over, so you could also say the South also has a shared responsibility in the under-development of the North but that is not a strong argument anyway. The argument is that, leaders in every zone need to jump start serious development if we are to avoid the kind of doom or crisis we are facing today.
I believe strongly that no Northern leader can stop the Boko Haram menace, Boko Haram will be stopped by genuine development efforts from their local government leaders, from the private sector leadership, state government and from the conscious intervention of the Federal government.
Senator David Mark is the highest political office holder from your state, what is your assessment of his leadership of the Senate?
I cannot assess him. I can only assess the National Assembly because the National Assembly operates as a team. So it is by the quality of legislation, the quality of issues tackled overtime that I can assess. I am more interested in how the activities influence the quality of lives of Nigerians as a whole. I am not interested in the longetivity of service of any individual member.
It is argued by some that even though Governor Gabreil Suswam has performed better than his predecessor who is your associate but many Benue leaders like you are fighting him. Why?
I don’t know where the people pick their information from but it is based on propaganda. When the President went to Benue state, the only thing he could commission was a renovated primary school and you can quote me. A renovated primary school located on Iyorchia Ayu road, a road named after me in Makurdi, that is the only project he could commission after 4years of the current governor.
I do not want to hold brief for the former Governor, even though I was closely associated with him, I think he can speak for himself. If the current governor had performed very well, I don’t think he would have so much problems with his re-election in the last election.
Anybody that knows Benue, there are 10key strategic local governments in the state, if they don’t vote for you, you cannot win an election. The current governor lost in each of those local governments including Makurdi, the state capital. 90percent voted against him because there was nothing on ground.
It is the forgery in the rural areas that came to bear and those have been put together by the Action Congress of Nigeria and its candidate and presented to the tribunal. Rather than allow the tribunal do its work, a lot of effort has been wasted on technicalities to try and make sure that the tribunal didnt even look at the evidence.
If the tribunal were to look at the evidence, Nigerians would have been amazed that inspite of the state government’s propaganda, the people of Benue overwhelmingly rejected this current governor. Nearly all his certificates from secondary school, to University of Lagos and Law school are questionable. That is also before the court. Today, when you tell somebody you are from Benue State, he would say the state where they forge certificate.
All these are happening because of one ambitious young man who is not ready to sit down and do his work. Forged his own documents and found himself at the leadership of the state and the people having rejected him, he is imposing himself on the people. History will judge.
Honestly speaking, do you still see your friend and long time associate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as a desperate politician?
I have never said Atiku is a desperate politician, so I don’t know where that question arises. I just see him as a politician who aspires to lead his country like most other politician. I have never said he is a desperate politicians. Check anywhere, no such statement credited to me.
I just see him as a politician who worked his way to become elected Governor of his state and later was picked by Obasanjo to help him and he served as vice-president. Whatever he does after that time is his own understanding appreciation of the situation. I have my own aspirations too.