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We should have Sovereign National Conference now — Unongo, Chairman NEF

Paul Unongo, served as minister of Steel Development in the Second Republic and is presently, the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF. Unongo, in this interview, talks about the issues that have besieged Nigeria as a nation over the past 57 years adding that the Igbo have had their share of the presidency under Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. Excerpts:

By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features

You were part of the deliberations that led to independence in 1960? What went wrong from the beginning?

I was a follower of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. I don’t agree with people who say that things are bad or that things went wrong. Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, fought the British for Nigeria’s independence; they were more patient than we are.

Paul Unongo

When Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for independence in 1956, the South wanted independence there and then but the Sardauna said no, that the North was not ready for self-government. This didn’t go down well in some quarters. They said he was not revolutionary enough, but there was a conference in 1957/1958 and the colonialists granted self-government to the Eastern and Western Regions first in 1957 and, two years later, the Northern Region got self-government.

But it was like the British created Northern Nigeria in a lopsided manner. The North was almost covering three-quarters of the nation’s landmass, and that was going to be destabilising once the British left because they failed to create the Middle Belt Region in the North. Calabar also wanted what they called Cross River State, and the British should have been the one to create these regions to have a more balanced federation, structurally. I used the word structure which turns out to be a very useful word today when the revolutionaries say ‘let us restructure.’

Even educated people, when they talk, act as if this country never went through very terrible things. It was not Azikiwe, Sarduana, and Awolowo that restructured Nigeria into a unitary form of government. The military has a command structure which guided them when they ventured into the rulership of this country. Nigeria was restructured from the federalism which we obtained from our founding fathers. So, the Nigeria we have now is the one given to us by the military. We had the civil war which some of us participated in, and we are so adamant that we shall not have another civil war.

So, when young men who were not born when the civil war was fought begin to talk nonsense, those of us that saw the war get worried, and we say what we need is a sovereign national conference.

Today, everybody is screaming ‘restructure, ’ and they claim the North does not support restructuring. It’s not true that the North does not support restructuring. The North cannot be opposed to Nigeria sitting down to talk. If you say a system is defective in one breath, like my friend, Prof. Nwabueze said, and then you submit to the National Assembly how you think the defect can be resolved, and in another breath, you talk as if the National Assembly is an illegality, you are contradicting yourself.

Nigerians love themselves, and they want to talk to themselves. Summon a sovereign national conference. Don’t summon a meeting of the friends of a ruler. Nigerians across the divide can come together and talk. The people of the North have to be properly represented. But some of them, Muslims, complained of not being represented in past conferences. Rulers are always afraid of those of us who speak out and say, ‘give us a sovereign national conference.’ Let Nigerians decide. We have the capacity and ability to talk to one another.

Secondly, Nigerians know what is wrong with Nigeria and, thirdly, Nigerians can fix what is wrong with Nigeria. But they don’t want to fix it. We have had many conferences in this country that amounted to nothing; let us have a sovereign national conference in which all the tribes will be represented. And when we now reach an agreement as one family, the Constitution that emerges should not be tinkered with by anybody. That is the Constitution we need and such Constitution would last.

But the 2014 Conference has been praised to have produced a good report? Should it be jettisoned?

There was no election to the Jonathan Confab. I am a Tiv man, and I was not qualified despite my experience to participate in the Jonathan conference. I was a leader of the United Middle Belt Conference and was part of the ‘50 wise men’ that wrote the 1979 Constitution. I attended all the constitutional conferences before the Jonathan Conference but he was critical of the people, and he chose his friends.

That Confab did not represent me, the only conference that representatives were elected was the Murtala Muhammed conference, and I was elected by my people to represent them. And I represented them very proudly in the Constituent Assembly. He called 50 people, and these people were called the ‘50 wise men, ’ and our job was to ratify the Constitution given to us by the military rulers.

The only person who refused to participate among the 50 was the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Rotimi Williams was our Chairman, and we were called Constitutional Drafting Committee. We argued for over one and a half years, and we ratified the Constitution.

So, the 1979 Constitution was representative of the people of Nigeria.

The last Confab was not. How could Jonathan call people to sit for just one month and dash them six million naira each? That is corruption. He invited the big men of Nigeria to come together and decide how we will live together. We have been living together for over 100 years since the 1914 amalgamation. So, why do the rulers of Nigeria have no confidence in the people of Nigeria? Why not allow the sovereign people of Nigeria to draw from the experiences they have and draft a Constitution that is representative of the people of Nigeria?

When the reports of all these conferences are put together, can’t Nigeria get a desirable Constitution instead of wasting money on yet another conference?

People are just playing politics. I know precisely what is worrying the people of the South-East. You have a Constitution that somehow stopped an Igbo man from becoming the President. The Igbo is a majority tribe. Even my tribe, Tiv, is not a minority tribe. We are the majority tribe in Taraba, in Nasarawa and in Benue.

And when Nigeria chose to discuss, we were not represented. I know what is behind the agitation for Biafra. But you don’t go out and say, ‘give us Biafra.’ Biafra is a bitter experience. Biafra is a war we fought for three years, and two or three million people were killed. I don’t understand these young men trying to break us up. If you talk about injustice, I understand what injustice is. In 1978/1979, I was a leader of a political party known as the NPP. I wrote the Constitution of the NPP, and it was because I respected Azikiwe as the father of the nation. I was determined to work with Azikiwe, but the Igbo let me down.

We have Nigerians who are committed to this country. But the potentials of this country are being delayed by the people who want Nigeria’s structure to remain unitary system and the people who want Nigeria to be a federation failing to dialogue that will allow the people of Nigeria to talk to themselves.

We have been wasting money on conferences that are not representative of the people. Let us call the real people of Nigeria, let us call a sovereign national conference; that is what will move Nigeria forward. Nigerians would produce a Constitution that would be representative of the people, not a ‘paddy-paddy’ conference that will take us nowhere. We should do away with a unitary structure.

Are you not being sentimental?

My son is married to a beautiful lady from Owerri, and they have five children. I am a cross-breed of Hausa/Fulani and Tiv people. We speak Igbo in my house, we speak Tiv, and some speak Hausa; which one am I going to follow? We should remain Nigerians.

What I see is a struggle for leadership. The Igbo feel short changed, but I remember that, in the past, they produced a President of one kind in the person of Azikiwe and they produced another President when Jonathan Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan emerged. Our problem is development.

The potentials of this country are being knocked out by wicked people in the North, the East, and the West. We should give good Nigerians a chance to give us what is correct, something that will move Nigeria forward which is being delayed by all these tribal tin gods that when you give them a chance, they don’t get anything done.

Look at Nnamdi Kanu, sitting down there and talking about his people. Why am I not one of his people? He said he is Igbo, so, my son who married an Igbo lady from Owerri, who has five children, what are they? There is Fulani blood in me, there is Hausa blood in me, there is Jukun blood in me, and I am Tiv.

What am I and what are my children? Forget about it, there are so many economic problems in Nigeria, and we have serious challenges about growth. Nigerians are capable. We saw a lot during the war, with many casualties on both sides. Why should they be talking about another war? Are they saying the people from the North don’t have Igbo friends? They have but when you talk about them as if they are cows; of course, they would react.

Are you saying the Igbo man from Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, and Abia don’t deserve better things in Nigeria, and therefore, you can make 20 appointments in the NNPC and no single Igbo is qualified for a position?

I didn’t say so. There are Igbo who are very intelligent. I said Igbo are qualified, there is a problem but this problem is being manipulated by very crafty people, and when they want to talk about leadership, they begin to talk about ‘my people’ being maltreated, who are their people? Who are my people?

Isn’t that obvious?

I have 12 children that speak Igbo fluently, and they are Tiv, and they are going to school. Why are they not just Nigerians? Why should they suffer? I was the only one in Nigeria, at the Constituent Assembly of 1977/78, who had his head broken on the floor of the Assembly because of my contribution that Sharia be rejected in the Constitution of Nigeria.

So, what can we do to unite the people?

I think we should talk. So, give us a place where we can go and talk, and the talk will become meaningful, we should have a sovereign national conference, and there are very intelligent people among the three major tribes of Nigeria.

At the end of the day, if we don’t like what the military created, if we don’t like what the British created; if we have lived with the British creation, we didn’t die, and if we want to live with the military creation of six zones, we won’t die, let us do what we can do that everybody would feel to be part of the whole. It can be done; we can start by letting the people talk to one another and have the opportunity to present the position of their people.

You talked about Nnamdi Kanu, but you didn’t mention Arewa youths, the quit notice and the hate song against the Igbo that became a hit song.

We were the first people to condemn the Arewa youths quit notice to the Igbo. We said they were talking nonsense and had no right. These Arewa youths are our children. They serve us in Northern Elders Forum. I spoke to them, and I went on television. I didn’t summon a meeting of the Northern Elders Forum. I just went on TV.

I said what they said was wrong. They had no power, and they could not enforce what they said. I said it publicly, and I gave the reason why Arewa youths said what they said. It was because all that Kanu had been saying, none of the people from the South-East at that time had come out to condemn him.

Even when Prof. Ango Abdullahi came out and said what he said, I responded saying that the North could not back anybody. After all the experiences of Nigeria, we cannot come out on October 1 and say’ Igbos, get out of the North”. And I thank God that when Buhari returned, he took the position that I took.

Do you agree that Britain favours the North and tolerates the South?

Britain was our metropolitan power. Britain was our colonial power. Britain was an exploitative government, wanting to do everything to divide and rule Nigeria. But my concern is not Britain.

Britain left Nigeria since 1960, how can we keep on blaming Britain 57years after?

Nigeria had an opportunity in which we presented the position of the United Middle Belt Congress and made it clear that these unequal regions will create difficulties; so that Britain before conceding power to Nigeria should create four regions and not three. I said, ‘let us have the Middle Belt Region’ and we drew the map of the Middle Belt which should have taken half of the land size of the North.

We held Britain almost to ransom and the leaders of Nigeria then, just like the leaders of Nigeria today, always wanting something for their tribes, scuttled it. Britain dangled the opportunity of doing so but one of the greatest nationalists, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, said we were getting independence and should focus on the issue of independence.

After how many years, what did they create? The only region they created was done to spite Awolowo. It was from the Western Region that was so small that they went and carved out what they called the Midwest. What about the big thing we called the Middle Belt Region? What about the Cross River Region that Professor Eyo Ita was calling for?

So, when the military came, we told them that we had fought for the Middle Belt Region all our lives, ‘you better create our region now otherwise we are not going to war.’ That was why they created Benue and Plateau states where the agitation for the creation of Middle Belt Region was moved.


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