By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features
Leader of the Igbo Women Assembly and an associate of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Mrs Maria Okwor, in this interview attributes the problem in Nigeria to failure of leadership and injustice which came with military domination and said only restructuring across regions, resource control and devolution of power will solve the problems.
From the time of amalgamation to the present time, we’ve lived over a hundred years together, but now, things seem to be falling apart. What happened to us?
Our problems started from our not having free, fair and credible elections. The constitution we operate today is not our constitution. What we had in the past worked better for us. I’m talking about regions and the time people like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Awolowo held sway. Every region developed at its own pace and contributed to the centre. Now, the reverse is the case. They just gave you anything they liked from the centre.
This presidential system that we operate today, I have always maintained that it is too wasteful and encourages corruption. See what is happening in our country: imposition of candidates and leadership failure. Nigeria has not got it right with leadership. Nigerians are not allowed to choose the people they want to lead them. They just impose people on the electorate and when they assume office, they don’t care about anybody except themselves, their families and friends. Some will even tell you that whether you vote or not, a winner must emerge.
We have been battling with square pegs in round holes. That is the origin of our problems. Then, this oil that we discovered became a doom for Nigeria.
Before oil, Nigeria had other resources which sustained the different regions. The East had palm oil, there were the groundnut pyramids in the North and the West had its cocoa plantations. We were comfortable. There was enough food to eat and jobs were available for the youths upon graduation. But that was in the past. Nowadays we have scientific type of robbery and the youths engage in 419 and all manner of fraud. These are the issues and unless we go back and start doing things right, the problems will remain. Our values are disappearing fast but nowadays our children are growing up to see confusion, they have not seen peace in Nigeria. What the children are seeing is survival of the fittest, do what you can to stay alive.
It is better for us to restructure this country or say , to your tents oh Israel.
You think that if oil was not discovered, Nigeria would have been peaceful?
We would have been living peacefully. And you know, there was another thing. Before the coup of 1966, there was confusion in the West, killings and violence and we had the wild, wild west. It was the violence in the West that caused the 1966 coup.
How then did it become an Igbo coup?
It was the hatred for the Igbo that made them tag the coup Igbo coup and the reason is simple. The Igbo are hardworking and when one is doing well, there is tendency for people to get jealous and hate the person. Now, about the 1966 coup, Nzeogwu was the leader but there were more Yorubas than Igbos in the coup. There were also northerners.
Gowon knows the truth but refused to say the truth and they termed it Igbo coup. The person who was sent to the East to deal with the leaders chickened out. It was a well planned coup to install the right government and Awolowo would have been the beneficiary of that coup if it had succeeded. There is a book you should read. It’s indeed a pamphlet where those who participated in the coup shared their personal perspectives of it. But somewhere along the line, the Yoruba betrayed the Igbo when the north got Awolowo to their side and gave him appointment. It was the Igbo that released Awolowo from prison where he was charged for treason and serving in Calabar.
When I interviewed Paul Unougo, he told me the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup; he said that Aguiyi Ironsi thought the Igbo would use the army to dominate Nigeria, forgetting that the military was dominated by Hausa/Fulani and the Middle Belt and there is no way the Middle Belt would fight against the Hausa?
Paul Unongo was a supporter of the East. I worked with him for Zik during his campaigns but somehow, along the line, Paul Unougo changed and became a betrayer of the East. Let me tell you, most of the Middle-Belters are no longer interested in the far north. They are meeting with the Igbo, Yoruba and others. You must have heard of Ibadan declaration. Southern Nigeria is working together to find a way forward. Paul Unougo changed. I was shocked to learn he was the leader of the Northern Elders Forum and I have been reading him. He accused Jonathan of doing something to him but I’m aware Middle Belters don’t agree with him any more. What affects the Igbo will eventually spread and affect the entire south. What goes around comes around and we should be honest about this country. It is time to restructure it or let every tribe go.
The middle belt is worse hit by the menace of Fulani herdsmen. See what they have done in Benue, Plateau and the middle belt. I don’t call them herdsmen. They are Boko Haram terrorists on the voyage, of Islamizing, killing, maiming and destroying properties. Paul Unougo’s place is worse hit and he hasn’t said anything about it.
So, our problem since independence is failure of leadership ?
Gbam! You got it. Failure of leadership, failure of the electoral system, the constitution was imposed on us. It is not the peoples constitution, we did not write the constitution. The 1999 constitution was Abdulsalami’s constitution. It was a military constitution and that is what we are fighting. Let us have the peoples constitution.
What about the Constituent Assembly that ratified the 1979 constitution; I understand 50 ‘wise’ men were elected in Murtala Muhammed’s era to ratify that constitution?
I don’t know about that, what we had was the 1963 constitution of regionalism. People have struggled and died. The late Tony Enahoro kept harping that our presidential system was not working until he died. He believed in what we had before, the parliamentary system but we continued in the lopsided system that cannot bring us peace. If there is no justice, there cannot be peace and if there is no peace, there cannot be progress. We need peace in order to move forward.
Everybody is talking about restructuring but I’m not quite sure the north agrees. The current Nigerian situation seems to benefit only the north?
The situation has indeed come to an end and that is why we have all the agitations. The Yoruba already are gunning for the Oduduwa Republic and I think they have everything ready. They even have their constitution and in the South East, they are agitating. You cannot ignore all these things and you cannot wish them away. What is happening is a reaction to the situation of things in Nigeria and this is the end of the lopsidedness . Igbo cannot continue being slaves in this country. The agitators didn’t see the war but they feel bad about the Nigeria we have today. We need to restructure if we want to be together. We need to go back to the regions and develop at our own pace. In fact, resource control is the key. Let each region use its own resources as it favours them.
Do you subscribe to a sovereign national conference?
Why not? There are so many other ethnic nationalities and they need a sense of belonging. The 2014 confab report addressed these issues. The agitations stemmed from the fact that people are being cheated. It is unfair. Look at the appointments. Look at the NNPC appointments, not even one person from the South-East. And the people who produce the oil have only two representatives. Is that fair? God does not like injustice.
The South-East is on the spot. The situation is dicey, perhaps Nnamdi Kanu over did it when he declared no election in 2019 starting with Anambra election scheduled for this year.
I don’t agree with him on that. I’m aware that before this time, many people tried talking him into sense but he reneged. I talked to him myself and I told him not to interfere with Anambra election and he said he was going to consult his people. Nobody agreed with Kanu on boycotting the elections. We even told him to focus on restructuring and he said if Nigeria is restructured, he would stop; if there is equity and justice, he would stop. (Prof. Ben) Nwabueze also talked to him. We agreed with him on certain things and disagreed on others. The constitution of Nigeria is not right.
Whenever restructuring is mentioned, there are still people who would ask you, what kind of restructuring?
Regionalism. Let each region grow at its own pace as it used to be in the beginning. This is what the British gave to us before they left but we deviated from it. And the British did something, they created the regions in a way that could divide the people, giving the north more than they gave the south and that was not right.
So, Nigeria at 57, which way forward?
Restructuring. Scotland had tried referendum and it failed and it is coming up with another. We should go back to what binds us together by giving everybody a sense of belonging; go back to the regions and allow each region grow their economy themselves. That was what the British gave us but they were partial, they were not honest.
Ambassador George Obiozor did say that Britain favoured the north and still does so and merely tolerates the south.
That is true. They don’t want Nigeria to grow. They want us to remain stagnated, they don’t want Nigeria to become a world power. We used to be the giant of Africa but where are we now?
Why are people opposed to referendum?
It is contained in the United Nations act. It is for people to vote whether they still want to remain in Nigeria or go their different ways. Scotland in Great Britain did it before and it failed to scale through and they want to try again. Some other nations did it. There is nothing bad about it. It’s just a vote and if it fails, we remain the way we are. If the referendum fails, the agitations will stop. Otherwise, lets go for a restructured Nigeria. If we restructure, the agitators will have nothing to cling on.
Are the women getting their fair share in governance?
Definitely not in this government. They were not given the opportunity to contribute their quota. Women are also diminishing in elective office. It is not good if women cannot practice as politicians. There is nowhere I have seen women as chairperson of a political party because the structure does not favour them.
Could it be because some of the women entrusted in leadership positions in the past were alleged to have looted so much from government coffers?
Not all women are like that. There are educated women of integrity who should be in leadership positions. I’m also aware of women who contested but were outmanouvred or rigged out. All these have to change. You came here to interview me on the independence edition but things are not right in this country. Let us do things right. Let this administration do what is just. Nigerian constitution allows freedom of religion. There is nothing wrong with agitations. They only draw attention to the fact that things are not right and we should look inward and address those things. How can a herdsman be carrying AK 47? Who provided that? When I was growing up, children carried catapults, stones and sticks, not AK 47. Now, the herdsmen are there destroying farmlands, killing farmers and raping their wives and daughters. It is very unfortunate. We should call a spade, a spade and address these issues.