…Kaduna-based human rights activist interprets the constitution
…Says Kanu lacks Igboman’s character, ignorant of history
…Speaks on the type of restructuring Nigeria needs
By Ben Agande
FESTUS Okoye is a prominent Kaduna-based lawyer who has carved a niche for himself as human right activist. He was a member of the 2014 National Conference and a vocal advocate for the rights of the less privileged in the society.
In this interview with Ben Agande in Kaduna, he speaks on the call by some persons for president Muhammadu Bihari to return to the country or resign, the agitation for the creation of Biafra nation. He also speaks on call for the restructuring of the country and opines that most of those calling for restructuring are motivated by reasons that are neither altruistic not patriotic.
The long absence of the president from the country led to agitation by some people for him to either resign or return to the country. What is your take on this?
There is no constitutional provision as to how long the president can be out of the country or how long the president can be on medical vacation. What the constitution provides and what has happened is that the constitution says transmit this letter and that happened.
If the president is incapacitated or unable to perform the functions of his office, then section 144(1) of the constitution becomes applicable. It is only a two third resolution of members of the federal executive council that is material in terms making an inquiry whether the president is incapacitated or not.
It is common knowledge that the president is sick. The nature of the illness, we are not in a position to know because Nigerians have not been informed of the nature of the president illness. It is the constitutional right of every Nigerian to demand that he resumes as the Charly Boy group did before he returned. They felt aggrieved and went to the streets to demand the return of the President. Nobody has the power to deny them that right. It is also the constitutional right of other Nigerians to insist that the president has complied with the requirement of the constitution by transmitting power to the Vice President.
But the truth of the matter is that there is a lacuna, a vacuum in the constitution because the implication is that the president could have remained out of the country ad infinitum even until his tenure is over so long as he transmitted that written declaration to the president of the senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Secondly, I think that the National Assembly must take a second look at the provisions of the constitution because you cannot ask members of the federal executive council who were appointed by the president to declare the president incapacitated.
That, to me, is legally and constitutionally incongruous. But at this moment, our thoughts and prayers should be with the president so that he recovers fully. I also believe that the handlers of the president, who should know the state of the health of the president should, in the national interest, tell the Nigerian people what actually is wrong with our president. A situation where some people are saying the president is hale and hearty while others are saying he is not well does not augur well for us as a country.
Does the transmission of a letter saying the Vice President should act while the president is away fully transmit the powers of the president to the Acting president?
At the theoretical level, the acting president has the full powers to perform as the president. At the practical level, a president, whether on vacation or medical leave still remains the president and there is always an inhibition when somebody is acting.
There are a few things that the person will not do at a practical and political level. In our own setting, the president has his own coterie of handlers and aides who owe allegiance to him. The Vice President who was the acting president also had same people who owe allegiance to him. There is always the balancing game between what the Vice President can do in an acting capacity and what he cannot do.
If the Acting President acts and acts well, there is the tendency that people may say he is acting well because he wants to supplant the president. If he does not act well, they will say he is refusing to act well in order to give the impression that the government is collapsing because the president is not there. It is not good for an economy in recession like our own, and for a country fighting insurgency and other political battles and agitations.
There have been renewed agitations for the restructuring of the country from various quarters. What do you think this new agitation means for the country?
I think that when some people are talking about restructuring of the country, they are talking about packaging the country after their own image and what they can get out of the country. My own take is that, the type of restructuring people are talking about is not the type of restructuring Nigerians are looking for. The type of restructuring some people are talking about is returning Nigeria to regions. That is not what Nigerians want. We have passed that state.
I was a delegate to the National conference. When people were insisting that Nigeria should be restructured into six geo political zones, the delegates from Ebonyi state insisted that Ebonyi state would not join any regional arrangement because when they were in the eastern region, the rest of the eastern region used them as house helps.
The delegates from Lagos state also insisted that they were Lagosians and would not join any western region. The whole issue about regionalism is not what our challenge is. The challenge of the people of this country is the challenge of governance. Poverty does not have any regional coloration. Unemployment does not have any regional coloration. The question we must ask is what is it that we can do to ensure that the ordinary people in Kebbi, Ogbomosho and Orlu enjoy the commonwealth of this country. That is the type of restructuring we need.
The question we should ask is, if we now have the eastern region, will it solve the challenge of good governance and poverty? My answer is no because it will be the same gang that has not allowed this country to develop that will remain in power. If you create the south south zone, will it alleviate the poverty of the people? The answer is no.
If you looked at the federal allocation for April 2014, you would see that in that particular month, Akwa Ibom got a total of N24 Billion from the federation account. The five states of the south east got N19Billion. Go to Akwa Ibom and go to Katsina state which got about N4 Billion from the federation account and see the quality of road in Katsina. Go to Gombe and see the quality of roads. It does not translate that if you have geo political zones, people will start enjoying.
Some people are saying let us control our own resources. If you increase the 13% derivation funds to 25%, Ebonyi, Zamfara and Osun states could collapse that same day because the wage bill of these three states is even more than what they get from the federation account. Their internally generated revenue cannot finance one local government. The point I am making is that we need each other in this country. We need to harness our capacity and capabilities in order to make a stronger nation. An regionalised nation will not take us anywhere.
The type of restructuring that people are calling for is the restructuring that empowers the elites of this country and enables them to still hold the resources of this country to ransom. The type of restructuring that Nigerians need is one that will force those in government to use our resources to develop our country, to fight unemployment and poverty. We also need the restructuring of the hearts and minds.
The Indigenous People of Biafra organization led by Nnamdi Kanu has renewed its agitation for secession of south east from Nigeria. What do you think of this agitation and what is the implication for the country?
The agitation has no ideological content, it has no programme and is championed by one young man who does not know the devastating effect of civil war. He does not have the charisma and the character of the Igbo man. He does not know the history of Nigeria.
I want to tell you that no person resident in the five states of the south east can take a decision on behalf of a man like me who lives outside the south east. This is because the number of persons of Igbo extraction living outside the south east are more than the Igbos living in the south east. How can a minority take a decision that endangers the majority?
I can tell you that if Igbos living outside the south east do not transmit money to the south east in a Month, there will be hunger and gnashing of teeth in the south east because the wealth that even those living in the south east are enjoying are generated outside the south east. How can a young boy who is a British citizen come back and play on the sensibilities of people and begin to endanger those of us living outside the south east? He has not even told us the states that are going to make up the states that will make up his Baifra. He has not told us the programmes that he is going to run. He has not told us what will happen to the millions of Igbo people living outside the south east. He has not told us the Trillions of naira worth investments in different parts of Nigeria. He is playing on the sensibilities of Igbos who believe that Nigeria has been very unfair to them after the civil war.
My opinion is that whatever challenges any ethnic group has in this country must be solved within the confines of the federal republic of Nigeria because there are many communities in the north that do not feel the presence of government. Same with the south south and south west. I feel that that agitation is infantile, ill thought out and could endanger the wealth and lives of Igbos living outside the south eastern part of Nigeria.