By Ochuko Akuopha
Major General Paul Ufuoma Omu (retd), member of the Supreme Military Council, SMC of the Muhammadu Buhari military regime, member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC headed by General Ibrahim Babangida and before then, Military Governor of the old Cross River State; Commandant, Command and Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna State; Brigade Commander, 33 Infantry Brigade, Maiduguri and Chairman Special Military Tribunal on Recovery of Public Properties, Lagos Zone, left military service in 1990.
He was also Director General, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State. Gen. Omu who served in the highest lawmaking institutions during military rule is married to Senator Stella Omu, who served as Senate Chief Whip and by her two-day stint as Senate President Pro-Tempore stands her out as the woman to have held the highest position in the Senate.
In this interview, he spoke on the ongoing agitations for self determination by some ethnic nationalities, restructuring, the 2014 National Confab and how the disequilibrium in the polity which started during military rule happened. Excerpts:
Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?
When we talk about the country heading in a direction, you will be looking at the issues holistically, the good, the bad and the ugly. I was in the system, but I retired 27 years ago from active government service and since then I have been home but I think the country has come a long way. If anybody says we are going backwards, it is not true; we are certainly moving forward, but along the line there are some bad, the good and the ugly. On the average, we are doing fine as a country.
What do you mean by that?
Let me start with the good, lets us take communication in the first instance. What has happened in the communication sector is not what anybody expected could happen in the next ten to 15 years; a tremendous achievement has been made. I am in the village here where women going to farms carry mobile phones, carpenters, mechanics, and even students carry mobile phones. You don’t have to be rich for you to have a telephone. In that particular aspect, things have improved. In the area of agriculture, a lot is happening, though we are not making the impact known. I am in the agriculture sector and things are improving especially in crop farming; but not in poultry where there are a lot of problems because of high cost of feeds just as in fishery too.
What is your take on agitations for self determination in some parts of the country particularly the South-East which is clamouring for Biafra Republic?
When you look at the agitators, some are extremists. Calling for Biafra to me is an extremist view. If you had taken part in the civil war, you will really not want to hear that name. I fought in the war and was wounded and I am still carrying the injury. Gen Babangida said the other day that he is still carrying the injury. This injury doesn’t heal quickly. The scars are still there and you think about it as time goes on.
So those in the frontline of the agitations were not born then; we are talking of over 40 years ago. Some of them were not born then, so what is the substance of the agitation? Is it a state of Biafra that will solve it? No. Most of the problems that gave rise to the original agitation that caused the civil war are not being attended to. If they are attended to, some of these agitations will not arise.
I remember that before the war started, the West said if we allow the East to go, the West will also go. It was not that they were in support of the East going, but what I understand it to mean is that if by not attending to the issues causing the problem, if they allow the East to go, then the West should go too. That is the similar thing that is happening now. People are talking about restructuring, attending to the reports of the conferences which some people say should be left in the archives and all that.
If you read the papers, people are agreeing not to secession but they are agreeing that government must address the problems that are encouraging secession. That is the way I understand it.
What is your view on the eviction order to Igbo from the North?
The same thing I was talking about extremism. That quit notice is completely reckless; nobody who had lived in the north at that time of the civil war will encourage that quit notice. I didn’t take it seriously because in this present setting, it is not going to happen; government will not allow a thing like that to happen; but in the setting in the past, it happened because of the coups and assassinations.
The tension then was different from what we are seeing now. They cannot issue quit notice because the East is agitating for the state of Biafra. Actually, it is the state of Biafra they are talking about and not independent country of Biafra. So, I think using that Biafra thing is misplaced, but the reasons for the agitations should be examined; most of them are germane.
Do you support the call for the adoption of the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference as the way to move the country forward?
I was in the confab, so if we took all that time and if government spent all that money and we achieved the magnitude of recommendations the way it went and somebody is saying they don’t know what we are talking about, I think the person is reckless. So what I am saying is let them discuss the report. I don’t know who is afraid of restructuring or who is afraid of dialogue. It was from dialogue we got to the report. So if we discuss the report, it is a continuation of dialogue. Let the government examine the report. Let the government either set up a white paper or forward the report to the National Assembly.
What do you make of the All Progressives Congress, APC’s claim that it is more interested in fixing the economy than restructuring the country?
The problems of this country are not mechanical, so it is not a question of fixing the economy because it is not mechanical. The issue is, we need restructuring or whatever you call it because the problems are there staring us in the face. We have to restructure so many things; take for instance, the police; we had state police in the past, and that we put them together was because of the over centralization which the military brought into the system; so if you look at it plainly without putting too much politics into it; putting a man from Isoko as Divisional Police Officer in Maiduguri or somebody from Sokoto as DPO of Oleh doesn’t help matters. That is the truth of the matter, so to run away from the matter that there should be no restructuring is not being fair to the country.
The system is bogus as it is now and so much has been written about it. If you read about the book on federalism which Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote from the prison; he was like the man who saw tomorrow because he foresaw that with the centralization of things, the burden, the bureaucracy will be too heavy for the system and it will get to a stage where the system cannot operate and that is what is happening. So, we are saying this should be carved out of the centre, for instance what has the federal government got to do with Ministry of Agriculture? They have no land, the people nearest to the lands are the states.
Everywhere you hear about Agric loan, fertilizer at federal level. The federal government should not be involved in all those things. Take the issue of the local governments for instance; if you look at the constitution, the responsibility of local governments is that of the state; the states are to work out their finances and how they operate.
It is only when you want to create new local governments that National Assembly has to approve; but that is still an absurdity. We are running a federation of 36 states and not a federation of 774 local governments, so the federating units are the states.
You were in the military at the highest level when these distortions especially in the creation of states and local governments were done. What did people like you do at that time?
It is politics at the highest level; if you were in the system, sometimes you can’t understand; now they may be creating a local government. you don’t know where the place is, it is a report that someone will write and present and say the population and land is so and so, but after the creation and you travel to the north, you find out that some local governments don’t exist; they are just some small villages, hamlets and they call them local government areas.
It was one sided and the imbalance is seen when money is being divided. You divide money by 774, you find out that the local government where the oil comes from is having the same share. In that area, the agitation will continue and to solve that problem we have to remove local governments from federal control.
So everything has to do with money. All that are being said about autonomy has to do with how to share the money. Let us decentralize the system. I was telling somebody jokingly that if you decentralize the functions, decentralize the money, decentralize the looting, so the amount of money you hear being looted at the federal level if you split it into 36 states it won’t sound that alarming. There is too much money at the centre that is why you find mismanagement which they call corruption taking place.
But many are agitating for local government autonomy on the basis of the challenges they have from the states?
Even the autonomy is not the way forward. Let us devolve functions to the states and the states will take responsibilities and cut their coats according to their sizes. I believe very strongly in the states having control over the local governments, and local governments are in states, so it is not a federal function.
In the Niger Delta, the people have been complaining about marginalization and underdevelopment of the region?
From a political angle, it is not in the interest of some groups to restructure, because restructuring will reduce some of these issues. I am a Niger Deltan from Delta State, I am seating on oil, but politically, people are greedy; they want to grab everything and they cannot grab except they have power that is centralized. So, devolving power will not be in the interest of so many people. If you study the documents on the ownership of oil blocs, most of our people don’t have oil blocs because acquisition of oil blocs is centered on how much money you have.
Systematically, they have created and shifted the wealth to some areas. If you advertize the sale of oil wells in my community and they put a condition of N2 billion, I cannot even get that money from the bank; but people who are not from Delta have been empowered, and you cannot compete with them. So the only thing that could be done to address these problems is restructuring and devolution so that the people can have a say in what they generate.
In those days they talked about ground nuts and palm oil, the states knew what they were doing. If you were a palm fruit collector, before the product goes to the factory, you have your benefit. The farmer benefited; the cocoa farmer benefitted before the government, the marketing boards benefited. The same thing applied to the groundnut pyramid. The farmers were making money. For oil, the law says anything below certain level of the ground belongs to the federal government. So, if you bury your father deep enough, it belongs to the Federal Government.
So, at what point would you say we started getting it wrong as a country?
The problems started long ago but more seriously after the civil war, with the over centralization of the system by successive military administrations.
What do you make of the federal government’s anti-corruption crusade?
The federal government is doing very well in the fight against corruption in a very messy situation. Corruption is so deep that we are just scratching the surface. Corruption is in the system, in the way of doing things from the grassroots; even in the traditional institution, town unions, trade unions, the entire system. They are doing much but what they are doing appears not to be good enough. I am talking about practical experience in the 80s and I was made the pioneer chairman of the tribunal on recovery of public properties. It was a bold move to grab people who were corrupt; people who stole money and acquired properties.
That momentum was started by Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon with Ibrahim Babangida as Chief of Army Staff at that time but that momentum was not carried on; if it was, I think by now we would have had some sanity, but there is no consistency in our system.
We introduce something; we haven’t even tried it enough, we drop it and start something else. What they are doing now, we started it. There used to be special investigation panels. When they write their report and sent it to the tribunal.
You were a member of that 2014 Confab; can you still recall some of the salient recommendations that are in the report that you think can immediately help to move the country forward?
There are over 700 recommendations; but it included restructuring into states that can manage themselves. In fact, the report said also that if you can’t manage yourself, two or three states can merge. That is, if you know you can’t manage yourself, you can take other zones, have an agreement and run the system from the money you generate; but what we have now, we have some people who can’t generate anything but collect so much from the federal government.
But again, in this country, whatever you have to do has to go through the National Assembly and the way I look at this National Assembly, is not going to help matters at all; otherwise, if the National Assembly looks at the confab report and genuinely address those issues, the country will have a way forward.