Udenta O Udenta, scholar turned activist and politician, was in the trenches in the struggle for democratic rule and became the first National Secretary of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, one of the three parties registered by Nigeria’s last military government to kick-start the Fourth Republic.
Before then he had been an executive member of the Eastern Mandate Union, EMU, member of NADECO. Upon a sabbatical from politics, he took position as Director of Conflict Management and Resolution, Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution, IPCR.
The scholar, who is currently a member of the Patriotic Movement of Nigeria (PMN) in this interview raises philosophical questions on the operational methods to achieve the quest for restructuring. Excerpts:
By Chris Ochayi, ABUJA
What is your stance on the recent spate of agitations for restructuring of the country?
A moment like this in history will call for the labour of patriots and that is why we set up the Patriotic Movement of Nigeria.
Most of us recognise that the constitution is deeply flawed and our democratic enterprise is not actually yielding the kind of dividends that it should yield for the broad masses of the people.
But we also recognise that this inheritance is not something we should snuff the life out of in our time and that is why we came together to address the issues of agitations, separatist manoeuvres, inter-ethnic animus and the weakening of the national spirit of togetherness. It has become abundantly clear that most people are donning their ethnic garbs and coming only at the regional and ethnic levels, at the base of what I call a troubling incestuous political and cultural embrace that does the nation state no good.
Identities are built and constructed in multiple levels; there is no way you can construct identity in a singular form. You come from whatever state, from an ethnic background and you believe that that is what defines you as a person. It is not true. You belong to a class, you earn wages, you are a woman who suffers double jeopardy and double injustice, you are a millennial with generational needs and aspirations fundamentally different from those of your parents, and you belong to a profession, and you have your faith alliances too. These are core identity markers that cannot be wished away no matter how hard one tries to.
I believe that identities must be constructed across multiple platforms; so to now reduce my identity to this singular formation of being Igbo, and the other being Hausa or Yoruba or Jukun, is an anti-intellectual and primeval stance.
That I love my siblings or my parents shouldn’t lead to the committal of incest with them, yet this is what we are now witnessing in social media traffic and mainstream media discourse space; a narcissistic ethnic spirit that embraces only the self and rejects all the others. That I love my ethnic inheritance and that I am passionate about being Igbo does not mean that I will construct my identity solely on the terms set by my Igboness. If I end up in that station, as some apparently have now done, it will mean a wholesale rejection of the entirety of my education and intellectual pursuits and exposure; a rejection too of the decades of filiations and affiliations with others in life’s several domains.
As a scholar, as a public intellectual, I belong to a class. If I am not comfortable with certain classes in Nigeria today, I will also not be comfortable with them in an imagined Igbo utopia or in a neo-Biafran sovereign moment. The same goes, I believe, to others who will see a persistence in an imagined Arewa or Niger Delta or Oduduwa republic, of the unwholesome traits present in the politically oppressive and economically exploitative Nigerian state.
The second thing I always look at is the how question. This is because I believe that it is not too difficult to agitate; in certain regards, it is easy even to agitate. What do people agitate about? You can list the problems, the challenges, the disabilities, the maladies of the nation, you can list all the deprivations, marginalization, the hurts, whatever you like to call them. I have been part of this agitation over the years, fighting for the enthronement of democracy and for the de-marginalization of Eastern Nigeria. So, it is not a new phenomenon even in the sense of the heightening of its logic and the intensification of the main currents and tributaries of resistance.
So what to debate about or agitate about is easy; why it is even necessary to agitate is easy. But how you achieve your set goals or agenda or realize your vision is another kettle of fish that baffles many. The how question will require rigorous and deep thinking, critical thinking, scenario building, development of strategic frameworks, engagement with process-based practical action, and many more variables. I bet you, the louder the noise, the more absent will be the how element.
It is not enough to pontificate about matters that are deep and complex. For example, as painful as it for most of us, you cannot restructure the country outside the strict terms set by the Constitution itself because to do otherwise will impel overcoming the constitutional state. It will entail the destruction of the existing constitutional order. It will simply be an attempt to dislodge the democratic system in its totality. You must thus vacuum out the established system and democratic order completely; you must destabilize it wholly in order to create the space to restructure outside the existing constitutional framework.
This means that the government of the day must cede its powers, must self dissolve in order to open the strategic space that will be filled by a conference with sovereign or constituent powers and which will thus draw up a new constitution. Yet, this scenario is mere wishful thinking except we have in our midst those who would rather go through that route in which case we will ask them to boldly stand up and declare their position.
Let me say a shocking thing. As the founding National Secretary of Alliance for Democracy in 1998, I never saw the text of the 1999 constitution. If I even saw it, I am not sure I read it and I am sure very many Nigerian politicians did not see it and that if they saw it they didn’t read it and if they read it they did not take whatever they read very seriously. We were in a hurry to get the military out of the system so we didn’t care about the consequences of the constitutional document before us and what damage it could cause down the line.
If I say so declare thus today, there will be many people out there who would want to call out all of us politicians who midwifed the political transition that was undergirded by a unitarist constitution but they have to rewind to 1998 to know where we were coming from. Some of us like myself came straight out of detention and plunged into the democratization process. Others like Bola Tinubu and Tokunbo Afikuyomi came back from exile and also plunged into the process. So we needed to get the military out of power very fast and in so doing postponed to an unknown future date the resolutions of the items in the national question.
Even when NADECO wanted a Sovereign National Conference, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar did not give it to us. He said we should go and form a party and then if we win we can convene such a conference rather than assuming power. Civil society structures were also implicated in this haste to legitimize the 1999 political transition.
Those of us in the Patriotic Movement of Nigeria want to lower the temperature of the nation, bring down the national blood pressure and begin wide ranging consultations not only among the elders who sometimes are not speaking like elders but most crucially among the ranks of the youth and their various organizations. We need to call our national stakeholders out, not by naming them individually but by approaching these elders in their domains and tell them that we expect more from them; that the younger ones look up to them; and that when their language is the language of brimstone and fire and thunder, what do they expect the language of the young to be.
How do you intend to reach out? How do you intend to achieve this?
It is through consultations and dialogue. We know who the stakeholders are; both the class of the elders and the class of the youth. For example, if you come to the Igbo world, we know who the influential elders are, from the President of Ohaneze Ndigbo to former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, and countless others in between. We will also engage the political parties and the political class, from the Governors to the NASS South East caucus; and from the leadership of ALGON to the key players in the parties very active in the zone. We will replicate the same dialogue scenario in the other geopolitical zones and in the capital city of Abuja.
We will also be engaging with former Presidents and Heads of States, former Chief Justice of the nation, former Senate Presidents, former Speakers, and the rest of the nation’s leading nationalists and impact players. We will reach out to them to lend voice to the call for sober reflection, to speak up for the peace and unity of the country, to speak up for justice and fairness, to speak up to the end of marginalization and hurt, to speak up to the need to renovate our constitutional framework by applying tremendous pressure on those who manage the constitutional reconstruction realm.
We have developed a Framework for a Strategic Plan of Action which encompasses so many things including town hall meetings where the younger folks will come in; you don’t just consult elders for the sake of consulting the elders, you must consult the activists. These northern youths that issued the quit notice who are they, are they faceless and if they are not faceless, we will fish them out and engage them.
I was among those that went to see Nnamdi Kanu in detention. We visited him and his colleagues as a delegation from Nzuko Umunna, a pan Igbo platform we belong to. We of the PMN intend to organize an integral town hall meeting in Abuja and segregated town hall meetings across the nation and we will invite IPOB, MASSOB, other pro Biafra groups, Arewa youth groups, Middle Belt youth groups, Niger Delta youth groups and Oodua youth groups to attend with an open mind and freely canvass their positions in a civil and respectful manner.
So if you table your grievances others will table theirs and by the time the grievances multiply in numbers we utilise the expertise of professional interlocutors present to distil out the things that separate us and the things that bind us together. You will be shocked by the quantum of forces that bind people together and the limited range of forces that separate them.
The real problem is that groups are not engaging as much as they should and because of that very many people are retreating to their ethnic enclaves and thus weakening the centre very alarmingly. Our plan is to rebalance the national centre of gravity, to infuse more life at the centre, not with the aim of weakening the federating units, but to show that if there is an absent centre it will be impossible to even hold those units together for any reasonable period of time.
Talking about the Biafra agitation, to some of them these things can be achieved by just …?
Have you tried to engage those who are agitating for Biafra or Arewa or Niger Delta or Oduduwa or even for something else? If you read some of what they have said in terms of the how their vision will be achieved, not what they want to achieve, not why they want to achieve it, not when they want to achieve but how they want to achieve it, you will be shocked by the incoherent and illogical answers you will get. This situation would have been very laughable if not that the matter at hand is deadly serious, and for some people very existential in nature. Do you know that the how question even harasses the life out of professors, out of philosophers, so you can see how difficult it is to tackle it.
Solving the how riddle means one cannot go for an easy solution, because the how means constructing a process-led, praxis -based, dynamic scenario in which you learn the ways and means of converting theory into practice. For example, what are the channels through which this conversion will occur? If you want to realise your dream of the state of Biafra or Arewa or Niger Delta or Oduduwa, how do you go about it in a strict constitutional manner? You want a referendum that is not in the constitution, how do you constitutionalise referendum in order for people accept it as valid? Are the various groups agitating aware that without an unequivocal buy-in by the government of the day, there is no way to resolve the riddle of the how?
It is not enough generating momentum, building up a mass base and getting millions of people to buy into your agenda and at the end it becomes a mere illusion. And having mobilized them and given them hope and yet they are not able to realize the hope because you gave little thought to the how question, you could make strategic mistakes, you could become desperate that you must achieve something somehow and that could create its own complications and lead to violence, loss of life, state of instability, mayhem and social disorder.
And that is why we want things that are practical, doable, and implementable. This is the kind of programme the Patriotic Movement of Nigeria has designed and are now seeking a buy in by all national stakeholders, both at the centre and within the ranks of the ethnic nationalities, even though there is something troublingly incestuous about the unbridled upsurge in ethnic self-love in Nigeria today.
The northern youths that gave the quit notice, what is your …..?
Many people have spoken very powerfully to condemn that kind of insensitive declaration. There is always a line you cannot cross even when you are addressing what you consider to be hate messages. You may say that Radio Biafra has been broadcasting so many bad things against the north or Islam or Hausa or Fulani people then you must reciprocate in kind. There is something we call proportionate reciprocity, when you reciprocate it must be proportionate to whatever you are addressing.
My own take on the statement issued by the so called northern youth groups is that it wasn’t an organic threat; it was a constructed threat, a deliberate statement crafted for a specific purpose. The real danger in this kind of insensitive and unwarranted statement is that whether constructed or organic, it has the capacity of unleashing unintended consequences as any student of conflict studies will readily attest to.
This is in the sense that any conflict situation between two or more people, anywhere in the country, possibly involving an Igbo person and an Hausa or Fulani person, and with regard to a business transaction or a love affair gone bad, can act as a conflict trigger. And given the abundance or ready availability of conflict drivers and conflict entrepreneurs, it could multiply in intensity and tempo and escalate very quickly.
At the end of the day whether we remain together as one, which is what we urge our people to continually work towards or whether anything happens to the country, we can still sit down and look ourselves eyeball to eyeball and talk. But we cannot begin talking with hate messages and counter hate messages, threats and counter threats, with the social media celebrating orgies of blood and death and wishing everybody who is not part of your ethnic group the worst abomination imaginable. You cannot start from that premise and at the same time reach across and sit down to negotiate the future of the country. We must lower the temperature of the nation, bring down this bellicose level of rhetoric and open up public spaces and media spaces and so on with messages that resonate positively.