BY CHARLES KUMOLU
“What we are calling for is a renaissance. We have to say that this is the last time the Buharis, the Obasanjos and others of their generation would rule this country”. With these words, the Key Note Speaker at the recent summit of the Yoruba and Igbo, titled: Handshake Across the Niger, Mr. Alban Ofili-Okonkwo, says what the summit, held in Enugu, did was “an advocacy for tomorrow so that there will be a different narrative”. Ofili-Okonkwo, in this interview, also responds to some contentious national questions.
Can you relive your experience as the Key Note Speaker at the recent parley between the Yoruba and Igbo held under the aegis of Handshake Across the Niger?
That event came from the fact that a lot of things are going wrong in our polity. We are losing a beautiful country and people are concerned. But the more profound and fundamental side of it was that it was an occasion where the East, West and indeed the whole of the South felt that it was time to honour an event in history. We honoured an auspicious event that we had overlooked for a long time. Nigeria has produced heroes but there are heroes whose acts stand for all time. And nobody stands taller than Fajuyi and Ironsi. It was a time when the two arms of the South including our brothers in the South-south decided to come together to honour Fajuyi and Ironsi and learn from their exemplary acts of brotherhood. In my speech, I described it as an act of honour that dignified our humanity in the sense that if two people took the vows of matrimony, it is only death that will do separate them. What I saw in this brotherhood is that we have gotten to a juncture where we can acknowledge our heroes.
Where we are coming from?
We also used that opportunity to audit where we are coming from in order to determine where we have to go. If we looked at our past, we can put it on a scale and ask if it is a worthy past. We will now ask if we made some mistakes so that we can redefine the present and project the future.
With the outcome of the event, would you say that the forum achieved its immediate objectives?
In terms of success, it was beyond our expectations. Almost everybody that was invited attended. We had a full hall and had the right names and personalities. It is an event that was a success and happened at a juncture of history. But does it define itself? No! It only defined itself as the beginning of a statement of intent which is line with what I earlier said that there is a lot of confusion about where we are coming from. That is why we asked if we could have done better as a people and everybody answered yes. We also asked if we intend to do better and everybody said yes. The question now is, can we make our lives as citizens of this country better? In responding to that, we need to evaluate what we have done before and what we intend to do better. We have established an event which is only a stepping stone to the future. If we have scored hundred percent with that event that took place in Enugu, it only represented two percent of our future. We need to now fill up that 98 percent. But we are not foolish to pretend that the 98 percent will come tomorrow or the day after. It is a medium and long-term project but Enugu marked the beginning.
Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa
In my paper, I looked at our landscape because it was one of the wonders of our landscape that gave us the name, Nigeria. The River Niger which took its source from the high lands of Futa Jallon was seeking to empty into the Atlantic Ocean and it could have gone straight to empty into the ocean but it took a long journey through several countries to empty itself in Nigeria. That river that did not take its source in Nigeria defined Nigeria because our country’s name was derived from it. It was not the indigenous people who chose the name but the colonialists who were thinking people. They used our dominant geography to define our territory. Therefore, I am saying that the new generation of Nigerians must seek their generational mission on that plank which is the occurrence of nature within our landscape. River Niger also met another river at the confluence in Lokoja where both joined and emptied at the Delta. It is from the same Delta that Nigeria earns its resources. We must turn away from the past that defines us as Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa in order to find our generational mission.
On pre-event perception
I am not concerned. The people, who know me and my antecedents, know that for me to have been invited, it showed that the event was not ethnic in any way. My first grandson is Yoruba, my first granddaughter is Yoruba. If I am an entrepreneur, what defines me is what I do and how I do it, not my tribe or my tongue. I have never run a company where everybody in the company comes from my geopolitical zone, it is not possible. Competence is what we are looking for because we live in an international highway of knowledge. No matter anybody’s pigmentation, height, size or where he comes from, if a company is looking for someone to be employed, a competent person will be the one to be employed no matter where the person is. That is tomorrow’s world and the world that Nigeria needs to join. Unfortunately, our leaders till now, are giving us what they can. I think it is time for this generation to say no to that. President Muhammadu Buhari was in his 30s when he started handling the affairs of Nigeria and in his late 70s he is still handling the affairs of Nigeria. For God’s sake, he should give us his son and go home. Whether his son is Fulani does not matter, what matters is competence. If he has trained a son to the extent that he understands, and can connect with my children and convince them to come to Nigeria to build a new nation, he should give him to us. We need a new nation where we can get more money than our oil wealth can give us through quality leadership. The new Nigeria should not be a nation where we will depend on what we dig out from the ground to survive. If at their own time it was good for a 36-year old boy to become a leader, why can’t it be possible now? I am in my 60s and I am in retirement. The minimum I can do is to make sure that those in their 30s and 40s take their turn by saying enough is enough. That will enable people, who can create value to multiply. It is easy to build network in value creation. On the social media there is high breed of interaction on account of knowledge by Nigerian professionals. When Buhari went abroad for treatment because he could not get better treatment in Nigeria, was it a Fulani person that treated him there? He came back different and happy because he was treated well as a result of knowledge and a good infrastructure. We need a President who would understand the importance of knowledge and infrastructure, who will no longer look at tribe, tongue, and faith, who will understand the landscape of Nigeria and seek inspiration from the wonders of nature. And I think the time for that has come.
Since the Handshake Across the Niger was aimed at fostering mutual cohesion, critiques argue that it ought to have been called Handshake across Nigeria to give it a semblance of inclusiveness. What is your take on it?
Everybody, who spoke talked about the need for the handshake to extend across the Benue. I think that is just a platform that advocated a shared humanity and the bonds of brotherhood. We also used that to redefine the pedestal on which to discuss our future. A lot of people spoke about restructuring, a few talked about the devolution of powers but I spoke on the fact that the constitution that we have is a transitional one which must go after 20 years. We didn’t talk about the constitution of the West, East or South-south, rather, it was the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria so that there will be inclusiveness.
In your speech, you said that instead of calling for restructuring, Nigerians should demand a new constitution, don’t you think that was at variance with what the South wants?
If there were 16 million people in the South, each of them has a different meaning about what restructuring means. What that means to me is that the instrument called the constitution is faulty. When the ruling party was canvassing for votes they promised to restructure but they came and said it means different things to different people. There is also devolution of powers but will it solve the problems? The constitution has served its purpose. For instance, Christians will tell you the difference between the New and Old Testaments. Moses was a prophet of God, who served his time after which Christ came to say that the Law of Moses had served its purpose. And he gave us the New Testament which is the future. The New Testament defines the future of the western world. The western democracy was predicated on the teachings of Christ. Therefore, saying that our constitution should be adjusted will be a futile exercise. It was designed by the military. Nobody understands that constitution more than those that bequeathed it to us. If the constitution is not faulty would it have been possible for ex-military Heads of State to rule us again in a democratic setting? Is it not better for us to replace the constitution after 20 years by coming together to draft a constitution that will reflect what we want in a new Nigeria? In making a new constitution, we can go from the ward, local government and senatorial districts to collate the input of the people. Having harvested popular opinions, we can come to the table of equality to deliberate. In shaping a new constitution, we can also say that if Kano has so many local government areas, they can increase it to 200 as long as it does not determine what they get from the national purse. Also, if I claim that our population in Delta is hundred million, it will not matter as long as it does not determine what Delta gets from the federal purse.
On Fulani herdsmen
There is an answer to the herdsmen question. And it is only when we get to that table and start acting well that those answers will come. The intent will be that we want to be one indivisible nation. But when someone says that some will describe it as a master-servant pronouncement. It can be a beautiful thing because each geography will bring its own critical resource to the table. The variegated cocktail is our strength and it did not happen by accident. It is a gift of destiny but we have refused to claim it for generations because we have not acted well. For the new generation of Nigerians, it has become not an obligation but a duty to rise up and claim it. They have to say that this is their time. They have to say that they are not defined by tongue and faith but by humanity. When that happens, we can shut our eyes and conceive a future that even America cannot contemplate. And that includes the herdsmen because they are part of it. It is not the way Buhari is doing it. It could be done in a different way so that they can spread their shoulders as proud Nigerians. With the appropriate solution, the Fulani will acknowledge that a fisherman from Ijaw land is entitled to the same life that they have.
Given the outcome of the forum, are you confident that the age-long political division in the South would give way to an era of mutual socio-political relationship. And what do you make of the absence of some key political office holders from the South?
We did not convene the event for governors. Almost all the governors were represented except Ebonyi and he had his reason. He said they told him late, stating that he would attend the next one. Other governors knew before him and he was only told a week to the event. He did not say that he rejected it or that it was not a worthy thing. I know a lot of people who supported it but could not come because of some engagements abroad. The Chairman, for instance, had a medical appointment abroad, so, there was no way he could make it but he gave his blessings. I refuse to be limited to attendance and minute things. The concept is a new vision of our society. That is where we are going. It is not about mundane feelings and partisan politics, it is a clear vision of what we want for this country. It is that vision where a Fulani man and a man from Kalabari would set up a business that they would grow old doing. And each person will attend the burial of whoever dies first. But if we reduce it to the past where Buhari, Obasanjo, and others are coming from, we will be condemned. These people represent the Old Testament. All I am saying is that the youths should claim their tomorrow. What we are doing is an advocacy for tomorrow so that there will be a different narrative. It is a vision shaped by knowledge, wisdom and shared humanity. This is something the Buharis can’t see because they don’t have it.
In the past events like the one you had in Enugu took place with near-similar vision but they were not sustained. How do you think the gains recorded in Enugu would be sustained?
It is the narrative that came out of the event that shows that we have come to a juncture where we will redefine our nation. There were options that were brought to the table but the bottom line is that the youths own tomorrow and they must be encouraged to seize it with both hands. In doing that, the more fundamental thing is that Nigeria is a land of promise. Only the people who own tomorrow will make that the promise to be realised. What we are calling for is a renaissance. We have to say that this is the last time the Buharis, Obasanjos, and others of their generation would rule this country.