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Ekwueme’s recipe for a better Nigeria

•Restructure Nigeria for regions to develop at their own pace
•My take on revenue sharing formula
•Dialogue with Niger Delta militants to increase oil production
•1983 coup was aimed at stopping me from becoming president
•Why I declined Obasanjo’s offer to be Senate President

By Onochie Anibeze, Emmanuel Aziken, Emeka Mamah

Dr. Alex Ekwueme, served as Nigeria’s vice-president between October 1979 and December 1983 and played a pivotal role in the fight against military rule prior to 1999 having been chairman of the, G34, a political platform upon which the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP was formed.

Lawyer, architect and statesman, Dr. Ekwueme who would be 84 later this month spoke to a team of Vanguard reporters in his Oko, Anambra State residence on the trajectory of Nigeria’s independence, the state of the nation and the fate of his party, the PDP which he served among others as its first chairman.


Is this the dream of Nigeria that you had at the point of independence?

No. I was at Race Course, now Tafawa Balewa Square on the night of September 30, 1960 when the Union Jack, the British Flag was lowered and the Nigerian Green White Green flag was hoisted with Tafawa Balewa as prime minister and Princess Alexandra deputising for our head of state then, who was Queen Elisabeth and Sir James Robertson as the governor-general. At that time, we were all full of hope that Nigeria would be a great country and one of the strongest in the Commonwealth.

Dr Ekwueme
Dr Ekwueme

We were a bit peeved that Ghana which was behind us in infrastructural development over the years got her own independence in 1957 which was three years ahead of us mostly because they were united under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah who suffered a jail term for his agitation for independence and the whole country was united behind him, so there was no question of negotiating between the various regions as we had in our own case.

So we were still smarting under that disadvantage that Gold Coast or Ghana which was behind us in development got independence before us. But in spite of that, we knew that Nigeria was certain times bigger than Gold Coast and that we had the human and the material resources to make us a great country, we were all looking forward to such a great country and even our colonial masters were looking forward to Nigeria being more than an ex-colony with which they could show off.

But unfortunately, barely five years and three months after that event things fell apart with the military coup of January 15, 1966, one thing led to another and then the counter-coup, the massacre of innocent citizens in some parts of the country to the return of easterners back to their region for their security and from there in an attempt to reach a compromise at Aburi, Ghana under the auspices of Lt. Gen. Ankrah, the then Ghanaian head of state and then from the unscrambling of the Aburi Accord unto secession on May 30, 1967 and then the police action by Nigeria to bring Biafra back to the fold.

The police action was indeed a phrase that concedes the fact that it was really a civil war that was started on July 6, 1967. The civil war lasted 30 months ending in January, 1970 with the maxim ‘no victor no vanquished’ meaning that we would make a fresh start.

Then after eight years plus after the end of the civil war, the military moved out and handed over the government back to civilians which was where I featured from October 1, 1979 to October 1, 1983 and we were to start a second term and few months into that second term, on December 31, 1983, the military came back again and stayed until May 1999 which was a total of 33 years since independence.

It was like a go-stop-go-stop syndrome and go-stop-go-stop does not make for covering a long distance in the shortest possible time and I think that was the reason we are where we are today.

People attribute the state of Nigeria today to bad leadership, do you agree?

That is only partly true. My own belief is that even bad leadership should be first correcting. I can tell you from inside knowledge that our programme from 1983 to 1987 was a vast improvement from what we had in 1979 to 1983.

For instance, let me mention it that when we appointed our ministers in 1983, we got all of them to sign undated letters of resignation, and I am making it public for the first time, which were lodged with the secretary to the government so that if any minister misbehaved we would not suffer the embarrassment of having to remove him and having to justify whatever he may have done wrong, we would just say that so-so and so has, for personal reasons, decided to resign from the government.

Why did you do that? Were the ministers corrupt?

I am not a judge so I cannot tell you who is or who is not corrupt, that can only be proven by courts, but perception is a lot of problem in any society and if there is a perception that a minister is corrupt even if he is not, it is better that you don’t leave that perception because it would corrupt the whole system if that perception is allowed to hold.

So, if there is such a perception it is better that that person is eased out and say so-so and so has for personal reasons or has decided to resign his appointment as a minister of the government of the federation and that the president has graciously accepted his resignation and thanked him for the services rendered so far and that would be the end of the story.

Besides that, were there other measures you took to improve the perception of that administration?

Yes, for the first time we had a minister designated as minister for national guidance, a former permanent representative at the United Nations, Yusuf Maitama Sule. We brought him back as a minister for national guidance and took our foreign minister, Prof. Ishaya Audu to the United Nations as permanent representative.

The idea was that, if you knew Maitama Sule very well you would know what he could do and what he wouldn’t do. The idea was that he would mobilise an ethical revolution within the government itself and interact with the populace in the way to ensure that there was synergy between what the government was doing and what the people were expecting the government to do. That was another step we took.

But how do you feel, each military government that came complained about corruption but ended up being booted out for corruption?

I leave Nigerian citizens to judge on that. I think the truth is that when a military regime overthrows a constitutional order, what they have done is tantamount to treason which is a criminal offence that could cost the perpetrators their heads if followed to the logical conclusion.

They try to justify their action by saying that the regime that they overthrew was corrupt, incompetent and so on and so forth and that they have come to correct the incompetence and to cure the corruption of that regime, but in the end it is for the citizens to judge.

For instance, would you compare the government we ran from 1979 up till December 31, 1983 to the one of January 1, 1984 to May 29, 1999 in terms of accountability and corruption? In our own case, there was not any contract that was awarded by us that I knew of that did not go through the normal process of competitive bidding and scrutiny. But in the case of the military government,  it wasn’t so.

They just call a person and negotiate and sign billions of naira contract without competition. I don’t know what else can be more corrupt than that and the procurement process is so uncompetitive that in the end what could cost N10 billion to do could end up costing N30 or N40 billion because no competitive process was adopted. That is just an example.

Some have said that the military have no business in politics and that they destroyed the country, do you agree with that?

Yes. I have always said it that military government is a curse in any country. It is a curse because it is another form of colonialism. Our founding fathers fought against British colonialism because they foisted governors on the people without their consent.

In their case I would say that they were civil in their approach, occasionally, they rounded up agitators and threw them into jail like the Zikist Boys, but in the case of the military it was by force of arms, the arms purchased with taxpayers money for the defence of the realm which you turn around and point at the elected representatives of the people and shove them out, that is a worse form of colonialism and you take over and start telling the people what they must do, how they are to be governed without their consent.

What kind of political structure do you think will make Nigeria politically and economically viable?

Going back to history we negotiated over a decade starting from Ibadan Conference in 1951 up to the conferences in Nigeria in London and so on until independence in 1960 –    a ten year period of negotiation and in the end what Nigerians agreed with the colonial masters on what would be the form of government on the basis of which they would be given independence was a federal form of government made up of three regions – North, East and West.

That was the form of government agreed with each region autonomous in many respects and with each region having its own Constitution and the Constitutions of the three regions annexed to the Federal Constitution in one document and with each region being able to develop at its own pace.

You will see for instance, Eastern Region that started as the poorest region, by 1966 the leadership had established agricultural plantations, rubber, cocoa plantations in Cross River State, palm in Anambra, Imo, Rivers and so on and they had industries, like Trans Amadi Industrial Estate in Port Harcourt, they were able to negotiate with foreign countries and were able to build the brewery in Umuahia, ceramic factory in Umuahia, the Calabar Cement Factory and there was development.

They were able to build the University of Nigeria before the Federal Government took it over ten years after. So, each region was given the freedom to exercise its initiative. It was Eastern Region that first started the Pay As You Earn tax in Nigeria. That was the creation of Mbonu Ejike, the first minister of finance of Eastern Region in 1952 – Pay As You Earn, automatic deduction from salary.

It was first started in Eastern Nigeria because when the region was founded they had to find means of raising money. It was in the East that they first started Entertainment Tax, if you went to cinema if it was One and Six, you paid three pence tax to the government.

People used their initiative. If you went to the North you would find groundnut pyramids in Kano everywhere. In the West, cocoa was booming and they used it to invest property in Lagos, Western House, WEMABOD, Cocoa House in Ibadan all that was based on the initiative. Even free education in the West and so on.

I did my analysis while I was in Kirikiri Prison, the only problem with the form of government that we had with that structure was that it was lopsided. The structure of the regions at independence was such that one region, the North was said to have been bigger than the two other regions, East and West and when even Mid-West was created the North was still bigger than East, West and Midwest and in a parliamentary system based on population, the membership of the parliament allocated more seats to Northern Region than to all other regions put together.

If as they did in the North, they all decided to go into one party, a Northern party, and they elected all their legislators on that party, then they would continue to have the leadership of the country for ever which would not be palatable to the rest of the country.

That was one fault in the disparity in the size of the regions. The second problem I discovered was that within each region, you had majority group and a group of minorities. In the West, the Yoruba were the majority group, and the minority group was what grouped together in what became the Midwest. In the East, the Igbo were the majority and the minority group called themselves the COR State – Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers. In the North, Hausa Fulani were the majority group and the minority were mostly the Middle Belt and to some extent, the Kanuri.

So, you had a struggle within each region between the majority and the minority. So, I decided to cure these two problems that we must have parity of regions between the Old North and the Old South and that was why I decided to have parity of geopolitical zones between the North and the South.

The North was divided into Northwest, Northeast and North-Central and the South was divided into Southeast, Southwest, and South-South.

And it also helped to have parity between the majority regions and the minority regions; the majority regions being in the Northwest, mostly Hausa-Fulani, Southwest, mostly Yoruba and the Southeast , mostly Igbo; and the minority regions being Northeast where you have the Kanuri with a number of ethnic groups in Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa and Taraba; and in the North Central you have Benue, Plateau, Nasarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Niger; and in the South you have the minorities in the former Midwestern Region and the minority of the Southeast region who together formed the South-South.

So instead of three regions, you now have six regions; three majority, three minority; three in the North, three in the South – parity between North and South, parity between majority and minority and the apportionment of representation would be as we negotiated with our colonial masters on the basis of which we got our independence.

What of representation at the National Assembly?

That will have to recognise the type of assembly we should have. Before we had a House of Representatives which was a House of the people based on population and we had a Senate which was based on equality of the regions.

So, in a real federation, the lower House represents the equality of all human beings within the country. Like in America, a state like Rhode Island will have two senators, New York will have two senators, California will have two senators, all the states will have two senators showing equality of the states in the upper chamber and equality of human beings means that New York may have 50 men in the House of Representatives whereas Nevada or North Dakota may have just two or three.

So would you go along with those who say that we should adopt a unicameral legislature to reduce cost?

In a federation, it won’t be wise to have one legislative body as you will have nothing to show that all the federating units are equal. It is the upper chamber that signifies the equality of the federating units. The only problem is that we copied and abused it whereby we have full-time lawmakers.

In the First Republic they had only one Long Session which lasted about six weeks for the consideration of the Appropriation Act and then another one for the Supplementary Appropriation Act, so they had two major sessions, and any other session was an emergency session lasting a few days, and they were all part-time members.

When they came, they were quartered in flats LEGCO Flats and they got sitting allowances on top of their salaries and salary wasn’t very much. Many of them were teachers, some local government officials and so on. But now, everybody who goes to the House of Representatives is a full-time person; he needs a fully furnished house, he needs legislative aides, he needs a constituency office.

Yes, all these are supposed to enhance the legislative process, but they cost a lot of money and how far this competence is enhanced is a matter of concern to some well-meaning people, because you find that some of these constituency offices, and there are some around here, you go there, and you just find a table and a chair, and you ask whether this is where a member of the House of Representatives is going to sit down and draft laws to be presented to the National Assembly?

So, it is not a matter of having a single chamber just to save cost. It is a matter of not adopting the American system hook, line, and sinker. But even in America, the congressmen have just modest accommodation in Washington; they take every opportunity to go back to their constituencies to stay with the people who elected them and to brief them on what is happening.

Will you then suggest that we go back to the parliamentary system with part-time legislators?

I am not advocating for a parliamentary system. I am ok with the presidential system, but it doesn’t have to have two chambers with full-time legislators assigned with a lot of staff, having staff at home and staff in Abuja.

But that is what the Americans do?

But your GDP and American GDP are not comparable! Even if they do it, I don’t think we can afford to do it.

Do you think that Nigeria, as it is, would have been better off if the country had been divided into separate countries at the time of independence?

That is speculative. In fact, it is inconsistent, because if it is Nigeria, then it is one. You cannot be divided and be Nigeria. It is a hypothetical question, because if you want to be big and respected, then we have to be one, but we have to be one by equity and justice and reasonable freedom and autonomy for all the members of the society; there cannot be first class and second class citizens.

You cannot have situations where people can come and roughshod over peoples’ farms, rape their women in the guise that they are herdsmen or when you wake up, then go to church and start bombing people. You have to be one both in reality and in spirit and action.

But if you have reasonable autonomy, if you have delegated a lot of responsibilities to the federating units as we had in the First Republic, you will find that development will go at a faster pace and areas of conflict will be minimised; and even that First Republic Constitution could be looked into to reduce the possible areas of conflict so that what will hold us together, must hold us together.

In the First Republic for instance, in London, we had the High Commissioner for Nigeria representing the whole country and we had an Agent-General for Western Nigeria, an Agent-General for Eastern Nigeria, and an Agent-General for Northern Nigeria looking over the interests of the regions, they negotiated trade deals, joint ventures and so on.

But once the military came, they introduced a unitary form of command; everything was centralised and unified and being that whoever is in-charge is in charge, and others have to fall in line, and that resulted in a lot of hardship for some sections of the society. It was while I was in prison that I did some analysis and the idea of the six geopolitical zones came up.

What was life like in prison?

Very difficult. The first time I got to Kirikiri, I was in a cell. At about 5:00 p.m., they would lock up the cell door, and so, I would be there from that time until the next morning. If you had to go to the toilet, the bucket was there, you eat, you sleep, you defecate there and the next morning when they open the gate you would come out and shower.

On one occasion, the minister of interior, General Magoro who used to be commander of Brigade of Guards at the State House came to visit, and he asked the prison controller to invite me, and I came to see him in the prison controller’s office, and he asked me, ‘how I was doing, and I told him that ‘I was alright, I grew up in hardship and that this is nothing to write home about, but that one question was ‘why does the cell door have to be locked up at 5;30 in the evening?’

Because to go out of Kirikiri from my cell you had a door which leads to a corridor, and at the end of that corridor was another gate which was also locked and from there, you get to the stairway landing and down to the stairs and to get from the stairs into the courtyard, there is another gate.

When you get into the courtyard our block was there; the other was armed robbers’ block and between those two blocks was another gate leading to the open field, and you will have to pass the field to get to the main prison entrance where you had another gate.

Indeed there were a total of eight gates if one wants to escape, so what is the point of locking us inside one and making us live with our faeces and our urine. So, he gave an instruction that they should leave the cell doors open and that they might lock all the others. The most you could do is to come out from your cell to the corridor, you cannot go anywhere else. So, that improved the situation; you could go out to go to the toilet.

Who was removing the faeces in the morning at that time?

Other prisoners. I had a young boy assigned to me who used to come and help me clean my room.

The idea of the six geopolitical zones looks brilliant. Was it your idea alone?

The only other person who contributed to it was my friend, Bisi Onabanjo. Two of us discussed this in prison.

It was from there you now took it to the Constitutional Conference where it was adopted?

Well, it wasn’t. But Abacha adopted it. The conference itself didn’t adopt it; they wanted the status quo to remain because it was in the interest of some people to maintain the status quo.

Some have suggested the abolition of the states and for the six geopolitical zones to become the federating bodies. Do you concur?

The states don’t have to be abolished. It is a matter of nomenclature. When we had Eastern Region, we had 12 provinces which Michael Okpara created. Ogoja province, Calabar Province, Uyo Province, Annang Province, Enugu Province, Onitsha Province, Owerri Province, Umuahia Province and Port-Harcourt Province, Degema Province.

There were six provinces in the minority areas and six in the Igbo areas, and all these provinces had their provincial commissioners, had their assemblies and had their provincial scholarship boards.

So, it is a matter of nomenclature. The states should be provinces of the regions. I am putting together a book called Nigeria: Thoughts on the provision of a stable polity, and in that book, there is an article by Shehu Shagari that states should become provinces of the regions.

Eventually, when I met with him when I was putting together these ideas, he said that he found that his suggestion was not very well accepted, so he wasn’t pursuing it anymore.

Do you still relate with President Shagari?

Of course.

Do you speak with one another regularly?

Yes, unfortunately, the last time I spoke to him he wasn’t feeling very well, he couldn’t hear me very well, and I couldn’t hear him very well.

How do you feel seeing PDP the way it is presently?

What can one say? The main reason is that the party was taken over by people who did not know how it was formed, who had no philosophical, ideological or spiritual connection with the thought process that resulted in the creation of the PDP. The first test of PDP was in December 1988 the local government election which was used as a test for qualification as a political party. We controlled 28 of the 36 states at the local government level.

Because the party became popular by virtue of the fact that people who took the risk of challenging Abacha, my Group of 34, were behind the formation of the party. So, it was thought that this was a group that could not be cowed, and also, we agreed to forget petty political quarrel and have a mass movement that would make it impossible for the military ever to come back and say, ‘Fellow Countrymen Bla Bla Bla…..’

Once they do that, they play one political party against the other to gain legitimacy, so we decided that we would all be in the same basket. It was only at the last minute that some from the Southwest pulled out to form Alliance for Democracy, and they didn’t qualify for registration under the rules; but because the military didn’t want to exclude the Southwest from the process, they registered them.

Given that your aim in founding PDP was to checkmate the military, but we have seen former military men taking over the parties, and that two of the four presidents in the Fourth Republic are former military men, do you think you succeeded in your effort?

I am not a friend of the military, and they know it, and that is why they made sure that I didn’t succeed in 1999 in Jos; they got my friend Olusegun Obasanjo out of Yola Prison, gave him a pardon, became a candidate when he was not qualified to be one under the rules of our party, and made sure that he became president because they were worried that if I came in that I may have a sense of revenge, even though I had explained it to some of them when we discussed that revenge wasn’t part of my make-up and that in any case, I had so much to do for Nigeria that I would be distracted if I had to go back and start doing unnecessary post-mortem. I thought they saw my point, but in the end, they made sure that it didn’t happen and one of them (I don’t want to mention names) said that if I won the election that he would go into exile.

But it was also said that the North was angry with you that you introduced the geopolitical zones?

That I made it impossible for them to speak with one voice! They didn’t like that. The second one was that after they had said that the maximum that they would allow for derivation was 3%, though eventually they came up to 5%, that they didn’t know how I manoeuvred it and got 13% and that not only that I got it to 13%, but that it was their leader, Musa Yar‘adua who came to announce the 13% at the plenary.

So, they said that I was a dangerous person and that if they left me alone, I could one day come up with a situation that it would be said Nigeria is now divided into six republics, and everyone would clap, and they wouldn’t know how it came.

So, there were two things that worried them, first the derivation and secondly, the splitting of the North into three geopolitical zones, but I don’t regret. Anything that I did was in the interest of Nigeria. You can see the problem that we are having in the Niger Delta in spite of 13%, so you can imagine what the situation could have been if they had only 3% or 5%.

Should they get more?

That is what I said. We should go back to 1963 Constitution which states that 50% of mining rights and royalties would go to the region of origin, 25% to the Federal Government and the rest to the distributable pool in which that region of origin will also have a share.

Sir, do you think the PDP can survive?

The truth is that it is one party that has the spread. We are in Anambra State here which has been running an APGA government for close to ten years, but in this town if you go round you will only see PDP offices, you will see an APGA office, but nobody will be there because it is a government party; they don’t have difficulty mobilising. But regarding having a party that works for a party, it is only PDP that is here. There is no APC here as a party.

You said some people took over the PDP, how?

I just mentioned it; Obasanjo was in Yola Prison, he had no idea how we formed the party and what it was formed for, but they foisted him on us as a president and leader of the party, and they converted the party into his personal fiefdom, and that is where the party’s destruction started.

It has been said that Obasanjo offered you the position of Senate President in 1999. Is it true?

Yes, he did.

Did you decline?

Yes, I did.

Don’t you think that if you took the position that you would have been able to mobilise the Senate to counter whatever breaches to democratic tenets that Obasanjo was accused of?

I am not immodest, but I can say that anything I put my mind to do, I try and do it well. If I had accepted and became president of Senate, I would have made the legislature something Nigerians would be proud of. But I didn’t think it was right. I was vice-president for four years and three months and under our zoning system in the NPN. Chances were high that in 1987 that I might have been the candidate of the party for the presidency.

Umaru Dikko gave a press interview in London after the coup of December 31, 1983 that all the talk about corruption was just hogwash that the coup took place because they wanted to stop me from being president in 1987 and that they didn’t want to wait until it was too close that it would be too obvious.

But I know that early in December 1983 that the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) had its convention in Ibadan and President Shagari’s speech at that time was that the decision of the party to move the presidency of the country to the South was irreversible and that it was in the interest of Nigerian unity. That was part of his speech, and I think this was probably what triggered the December 31 coup according to Umaru Dikko in his press interview.

So, if I was going to have a chance in 1987 to be the president, and the military stopped it in 1983, and almost twelve years after that my colleagues and I formed a party for which I was chairman from Day One until I resigned and they (military) stopped me again in Jos, why should I go and become President of the Senate?

Also, I had known Obasanjo since 1974 when he was in England at the Defence College; he and Bissala were at the wedding of Emeka Anyaoku’s younger sister and that was where I met him for the first time and I was practising as an architect. So, I invited all of them to a dinner.

I know that as a President of the Senate, you could be got rid of quite easily as you have seen. So, it could have been easy to get rid of me by paying the senators to vote you out. From what happened in the election of the first Senate President, Enwerem, it was clear that money had become part of the game, and we were there when Ghana Must Go was being moved around, and people were being moved by bus to Villa and back at Transcorp Hilton, Nicon Noga Hilton as it was then.

So, in a way, if I became president of the Senate, to work with him as he suggested it would have taken only an amount of money to senators to say that they don’t want this man anymore, and that would have been the end of my political career.


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