Elder statesman and nationalist, Dr. Paul Unongo, is one of the few surviving politicians who played key roles in all democratic dispensations and in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence. In this interview, he speaks on the state of the nation, pin-pointing where we started losing our way and the path forward. Excerpts:

By Omeiza Ajayi

Paul Unongo

What is your take on the state of the nation?

I think Nigeria as an evolving society has done pretty well. We came as an amalgamation of different kinds of people into one state as many other countries have done including the US. In our case, our relatively revered father, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was the father of this nation and who believed very strongly in a form of government that is called Union Government because he believes that Africans could evolve, like Germany evolved under (Otto Von) Bismarck with all her numerous problems, and about 300 states, was able to bring them under the umbrella of one German nation. Dr. Azikiwe thought that he could replicate that.

His younger brother, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, came on the scene with a correct diagnosis, but people did not believe him. They called him a tribalist. They were wrong. Chief Awolowo said having watched the African systems and the European systems, later on, the form of togetherness which would give the component tribes legal, constitutional ability to express their uniqueness within a larger nation-state would be preferable, and he said that form of government, federalism, was good for Nigeria.

But some of us ‘small small’ people formed our own organization to tell Britain that ‘you have divided Nigeria into three.’ Awolowo has spoken; Zik has spoken, and of course, Sir Ahmadu Bello has spoken. He said his people were not very ready for independence and that the process had to be gradual, pledging, however, to remain in Nigeria but that he would not hold the rest of the country back since they wanted independence as at 1956 while the North would be ready by 1959. There was a lot of wisdom in what they said. So, we the firebrand, the young people, we made our choices. People like me would pick the path of Nnamdi Azikiwe because we felt he was the Bismark of our time who was ready to unite everybody. So the three principal participants rejected co-federalism, rejected unionism and adopted Awolowo’s federalism, and we became the Federal Republic of Nigeria later on. Within that context, you can choose to evaluate Nigeria and ignore whatever is happening in this country now. I think Nigeria is in the process of evolving as a nation-state stressing residual powers in the regions.

On where the problem started

The problem is that after Azikiwe scored a fantastic victory in the Western House as a member of the House and his party was to form the government, the man who brought federalism as a form of governance reverted to the game we are playing in Nigeria today, which is tribalism,quite different from federalism. I just want people not to be too angry with themselves.

Awolowo felt, as the strongman of the Yoruba, Azikiwe should not have won the election in his place, and he could not countenance an Igbo man coming to be the premier or the first minister or prime minister of a predominantly Yoruba place. Night came, and when day broke, Zik discovered his majority had collapsed. The Yoruba abandoned him and went to a strange person they did not know ideologically, that is Awolowo, on the basis of tribe.

So, Zik was forced to rethink as an intelligent person, to relocate. He went back to his own part of the country to become the first Premier of Eastern Region.

Some of us sprang up too, in going with Awolowo’s federalism, that the notion that there are only three tribes or sections in the country was so fundamentally defective that we called on the metropolitan power, Britain, to correct this before they would leave. So, we in the Middle Belt of Nigeria came together and decided that we would call ourselves ‘people in the middle’ and that we were not Hausa, we were not Fulani.

At that time, we told Britain, Nigeria had over 250 tribes but that we could not dissect Nigeria into 250 nations. We told them that what has happened in Western Nigeria where an Igbo man was rejected…nobody questioned the fact as at then that Zik was the leader of Nigeria and then suddenly, having won victory, which would have been a great thing for Nigeria, in a predominantly Yoruba region, because the Yoruba were extremely sophisticated and they were the most developed part of Nigeria, and they voted on the basis of ideological orientation. Zik’s party produced a Zik premiership in Western Nigeria and in the night, Awolowo went round to convince the Yoruba that, ‘you are a tribe. Your tribe is called Yoruba. Zik’s tribe is called Igbo. Do not allow this to happen. Whether you like me or not, it is better to have a Yoruba man to rule over Yorubaland’. Unfortunately, I feel, this was the starting point of our problems.

So, he succeeded, and Zik was forced to go to his own place to become a little tribal leader, which was never what he wanted. That man called Zik was responsible for the revolution in Ghana, and he started his revolutionary activities in America. Zik was very keen on having a United States of Africa. He wanted nations within each state, that could create supra-powerful goals around which political actions could be taken.

So, we begged Britain to create a fourth region just to balance, because, within this fourth region that we perceived, we were not talking about religion because this region would have cut across the whole of the central part of Nigeria. It would have included the Nupe that were predominantly even Moslems; it would have included the Ebira, the Igala; it would have included some of the Yoruba, Benue-Plateau, etc., but we gave ourselves a title, Middle Belt, and we made very convincing arguments. I was the secretary to the leader of the UMBC, late Joseph Tarka, who people did not know, was only two and a half years older than me and I was very educated because I just came out from what you now call secondary school. So, I wrote our presentation for the London Constitutional Conference, and I knew we were committed to a fantastic nationalism.

Nigeria hasn’t gone beyond its past leaders

How far have we moved beyond our leaders in terms of development? Zero! We have not moved anywhere, and I am so sad. Today, the pursuit of other things rather than nationalism and patriotism have taken over. Whatever you say about our old leaders, they were patriotic. They saw a bigger picture of the nation that together we could do more in the economy, and that together we could command more respect in the international community.

When people say the problem of Nigeria is that old men have not given an opportunity to the youth to rule, well, at the time of Awolowo, all the people that ruled were young people, and they did well. Gowon was only 29. Murtala was young. All the generals that ruled Nigeria were young. Why didn’t they become our Bismarck? Why didn’t they even become this young man in Ghana, Rawlings? That is why I have no sympathy for people who do not bend down and analyse the problem correctly. People believe if my tribesman is the president of Nigeria, then I am president. The Yoruba man who thought like that, where has Obasanjo taken him? In this regard, I still haven’t found out why education hasn’t helped us, but I think that regarding what Nigeria ought to have been, 60 years after independence, it is an insult on some of us that we are still talking about Nigeria’s potentials.

We haven’t managed the influx of foreign herdsmen well

In terms of numbers, Nigeria has grown because at the time of independence, Nigeria was about 29 million or there abouts, today anybody that tells you we are less than 200 million is not realistic. And when you add the porosity of our borders… I have never seen a country where people enter so easily, where some people can just run from Chad with 200,000 herds of cattle,  not being Nigerians, they destroy the system, and nothing happens. And the reason nothing happens is that someone would say they are Fulani. Okay, are they Nigerians? No. So, why didn’t the armed forces do their job? They would say, oh, we have the ECOWAS Protocol on freedom of movement. So, you have freedom of movement of cows? Look at the problems they are causing in Nigeria now. Nigerians are likely to go and fight themselves now because of the hundreds of thousands of cows that come from Chad. Nobody charges  anything at the point of entry, and these people don’t know how we have been living in this country together. They go and spoil people’s farms, and they come with weapons to kill people.

You can see the security challenges that these people are causing and then people come out and say they are not Nigerians and these are big people that have Ph.Ds. Don’t we have a government? How did they manage to get into this country? And then others would start speculating that they came into the country to help the Fulani take over this country. Then the governor of Ekiti appears to have all the answers. Then you say they have constitutional rights, but you said they are not Nigerians. Do they have constitutional rights in Nigeria to free movement? What about the Fulani of those days that used to live side by side with our peasant farmers and if a mistake was made, there were settlements. These people that are coming now are contesting for land. We were reluctant to tame Boko Haram until they started taking chunks of Nigeria’s territory.

Awolowo died a long time ago. Why are we still stuck with tribalism? Don’t you think the 1966 Coup was also responsible for our problems?

No. It was only an addition. It was a second factor. The first factor was stopping the victory of Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe in the Western House. He won and was stopped only because he was an Igbo man, and there was no other thing. We must read history correctly. Then, the military coup, what destroyed it, even if the boy’s (Kaduna Nzeogu) thinking was correct, the aftermath of the coup revealed exactly what I am talking about now. There was selective killing of only the political and military leadership from the north and few Yoruba

Because majority of the Tiv people are soldiers and participated, the arrangement of Chukwuma Nzeogu was that they should kill the Igbo political leadership, and the young man, Ifeajuna and the rest of them who were sent to carry out this, became more tribalistic and more concerned and in league with their political leadership that were in the federal government, and they spared the Igbo leadership. That was what spoilt the coup.

Tiv short-changed in the APC Administration

Till today, I believe in the north; the concept I have been championing, to stabilize Nigeria’s politics. I am a Tiv man, and by the tradition of most Africans, your lineage is patrilineal. I believe the Tiv people have had a raw deal in all governments in Nigeria, including the Fulani government, as you people call it, that I helped to bring. The Tiv people form the majority of people in Taraba State, in Benue, in Nasarawa and they had a sitting PDP government, the boy we loved, and when we decided to change government for Buhari, we did not think about his tribe. This is our brother; we felt the north had been short-changed. We didn’t care about PDP. Jonathan was PDP, and we said we were going to remove him. ‘Our boy is the governor in the PDP. Our house is PDP. We are going to destroy all that’, and we did. And the only section in Benue that rejected this concept was Idoma. When we came to political patronage, the most important plum job was that of minister. When they came to appoint ministers in this government that we voted massively, and the Idoma didn’t vote, Mr. President and the government of APC went and picked a minority tribe, which is good, that didn’t vote and also proved to him that they didn’t vote for him when there was a court case, and a rerun election was ordered, and they still went ahead to vote in the PDP. They didn’t make a Tiv man a minister. They wanted to agitate, and I said no, you cannot be so tribalistic. I said we could talk to this man (Buhari) privately. So, I went and talked to him. I said in reality we live with in Nigeria, this type of thing will evoke negative reactions. The people voted out their own PDP government. They also voted out Jonathan who they had voted massively for in the first term. And when sharing patronage, they were not given ministerial slot, why?

So, was that why the President had to divide the nation into 97 percent and 5 percent rather than trying to unify the whole nation?

Well, we gave him 100 percent. Buhari was only talking like a politician. I know what he did in reality. If I were the president of Nigeria, the whole of the South-East did not vote for me except the people of Imo where their son retained the governorship, and the people voted for him. Just because of that person, I will balance the equation and give credence to those votes as a politician. Buhari is a statesman. You may not have been seeing him in that light because people already have a biased opinion of him. As far as they were concerned, he is a Fulani man, and Fulani people want to dominate the country. Buhari didn’t come to dominate anywhere. The man had an agenda. He said he wanted to root out corruption. My diagnosis of Nigeria’s problem is this rampant corruption with impunity.

Has Buhari succeeded in doing that?

That is not a fair question. Has anybody in Nigeria as a whole done so much to attack corruption in the last two years as Buhari has done? He has succeeded relatively.

But he said he would focus on three things – Corruption, security, and unemploy-ment…

Okay, I am saying he has super-succeeded.

In two years?

He did not say in two years. Buhari has been in power for only two years.

Yes? And I want you to assess his performance in two years.

Buhari has completely decapitated the most potent, the most threatening security challenge in Nigeria. That challenge took Nigerian territory, and the government of Nigeria could not do anything about it for six solid years. Buhari in the so-called two years has decimated them. He reduced them to mere guerilla fighters. They no longer have territories. Nobody has ever done that. Nigerians must learn to say the truth and give rewards. He has achieved.

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