By Chris Onuoha
Former President of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, a human and pro-democracy activist, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, was one of those who fought for the actualisation of the June 12, 1993, presidential election mandate of Chief M.K.O. Abiola, a struggle that led to the return of civil rule on May 29, 1999. In this chat, he spoke on the Federal Government’s declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day, how to end the scourge of insecurity afflicting the nation, why the North is afraid of restructuring and how to save the country.
The Federal Government has declared June 12 as Democracy Day instead of May 29, and the National Assembly has passed a bill in that regard. As one of those who fought for the actualisation of June 12, how do you feel now?
I feel very happy that it was declared. It is an honour well deserved for MKO Abiola, who was the symbol of the democratic struggle. But what we just hope is that by next year, rather than calling it June 12, and with recognition personally to Abiola, I am looking forward to ‘MKO Abiola Day’, like you have the Martin Luther Day in January in America. That would be the icing on the cake when Abiola would be recognised personally for the struggle he fought for in Nigeria.
Will it be right to celebrate true democracy day in Nigeria looking at the rising wave of insecurity in the country?
It is a challenge that so many interlocking factors are involved. You cannot take away the fact that the economy is not doing very well. Job creation is at an all-time low, and particularly in the North, where insecurity is very high; you have millions of almajaris who are not in school, who have no other means of survival. It is easy for them to be recruited into these criminal behaviours we are seeing. What one hopes in response is for government to, first of all, come out with new security architecture. To deal with this insurrection is of utmost importance. The security architecture that we have this day clearly cannot deal with these issues.
My point is, with the high level of unemployment, people are idle and easily recruited to look for trouble. So, it is important that two things will happen; first, the government must really do something about the economy. The economy is not in a good position that will encourage Nigerians to engage in profitable and good behaviour. Secondly, even security architecture: – the army, police, intelligence – is not in any way modernised to deal with what is going on. Our borders are porous. Al-Qaeda that was formerly in Libya when that country broke up and went into crisis, came down to Mali and from there entered into Nigeria. And Nigeria perhaps is the most vulnerable country for ISIS to operate. As soon as their activities stopped in the Middle East, Nigeria became the place they now found solace. It also finds it very easy to recruit cheap labour and these guys go into violent behaviour and they are ready to destroy. The response from the security architecture is very poor. Don’t forget the fact that these are very poorly paid people. So, the willingness to respond to the security challenge in the North is not there.
We need to focus on our economic recovery programmes. Our GDP should be at least 6 -10 per cent a year and not at 1 per cent. Our population has outgrown our GDP. We are producing six million new babies every year and that will not work. What should happen is complete new thinking of how our economy will work including our defence and security policies.
Restructuring seems to sound frightening to so many people. Do you think a new name should be given to it to drive home its point and vision?
Changing the name or slogan will sound very good going by what seems a suggestion because I don’t even like the word ‘restructuring’ any more. Whether we like it or not, in the South, to deal with Nigeria’s problems, all ethnic groups must agree. If northerners do not like to hear the word, ‘restructuring,’ then let’s discard it and find a better name for it. All we are trying to do is to say the Federal Government is exercising 98 per cent of the power. They can give us a lot of the power they are exercising. They can give, take for instance; incorporation of business names, issuance of driver’s licence, agriculture, health, marriage, etc. Why should the Federal Government control my marriage in the first place? These are basically things that can be done at the local government level. It is not political actually. Secondly, what is the Federal Government’s interest in the construction of River Niger and the seaport at Onitsha? They have no interest. Since 1978, the Federal Government has spent over N30 billion fixing the Onitsha port, but not a single ship has come there because the people responsible for issuing the contract for Onitsha port are sitting there in Abuja doing nothing. And they have no idea of what is going on. Why don’t you give it to Anambra State Government to run?
There are many ways the 36 governors and the president can sit and be like a draft and shift items of power here and there. The idea of restructuring is so simple but we made it sound so big and complex. We can have the Federal Government handle defence policies, foreign affairs, immigration and things they can do best for all of us. Matters of religion are a state policy. If the government wants to have Sharia in Zamfara and maybe a Catholic in Anambra State, it is a state affair and should not be federal. If you make religion a national affair, the Moslems will be counting how many Christians are going on pilgrimage and the Christians are also counting how many Moslems are going on pilgrimage. If you go to the airport, a national monument, the Christians build a church and Moslems build a mosque. That’s a problem. We need to rebrand and distribute power in Nigeria so that the geopolitical zones can get stronger and rely less on the Federal Government.
Do you agree that there should be financial autonomy for the local government?
It is a difficult question because if you allow that to happen, it will be difficult to have central economic plans for the states. I think the problem really is that the governors as a result of impunity ignore the local governments. That can be resolved if we create strong institutions. Nigeria does not have strong institutions. If there are strong institutions, the governors will not have to behave the way they like with the local governments.
In America, there are local counties that get money from the states but in a way, the state cannot dictate for them. I think that the argument about autonomy is a bit shaky because we have to be careful we don’t have so many entities that disagree with the state governments and cause confusion.
On state police
The argument about state police is such that should not be because the governors might misuse it but my argument is that we should create strong institutions that check what governors can do, in order not to ride on the local governments but the governors must have overall control of states.
The ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, has endorsed Senator Ahmad Lawan for Senate Presidency and Femi Gbajabiamila for the speakership of the House of Representatives. What do you think of that especially with the exclusion of the South-East zone?
That is the problem. I am worried that our concern is about sharing and distribution. That is why Nigeria is not working. We are thinking about sharing. The reason we are all concerned about sharing, who will be or have the principal jobs in the National Assembly is that the zones are weak. If the zones are strong, then the struggle to be called a senate president or speaker would be less. Everybody wants to concentrate on who will be the speaker of the National Assembly because they have absolute authorities.
When my grandfather was the speaker of the Eastern Nigerian Assembly, he had the power. He didn’t need to be speaker of the National Assembly. He had the legislative authority working for him. That is Mr Egbuna. Then, there was no desire for everybody to go to one spot. This brings back the issue of rebranding. If we distribute the powers and say, an Igbo man is made the speaker, how do I know that the Igbo man speaker will be of benefit to me? You check! How many Igbo men have been in positions and have benefited the South-East? You name it. That is why we are in this trouble because when money comes in, we share it. When we should be talking about growing, we are talking about sharing. Both Lawan and Gbajabiamila who are clamouring for top positions in the National Assembly, what have they produced? That is why we are not growing. We are just sharing. Money from the Paris Club comes in, we share. What about building infrastructure and creating jobs? That question of Speakership zoning is wrong. The only way we can grow is to have people who will drive the right economy, not those who are interested in sharing. Once you become a speaker, there is too much money for you and that is why everyone is struggling to be this and that.
Looking back at the June 12 struggle again, would you say our democracy is living up to expectation, and how do you score the democratic process so far?
It was a great achievement we all in the human rights and pro-democracy movement achieved and it was a starting point of what we thought could have been a great country, but unfortunately, President Ibrahim Babangida annulled it. Since then, we have been struggling hard to find our feet which we haven’t.
Again, it was a collective effort led by MKO. So, what we say then in response is, ‘have a rethink about this great country called Nigeria.’ Nigeria cannot run on these present economic and political modules, because it is going downhill. The country is the sixth largest country in the world by population and one of the poorest countries with unemployment, high child mortality rate, many children out of school and so many other things. It is not good. The only way things can change is for those who hold power to recognise that the marriage of the ethnic groups is not working, and we need to sit down and ask why our marriage is not working.
We have to answer the radical question Nnamdi Kanu has posed, even though I don’t support his revolutionary and illegal method but I understand and empathise with the point that he is making. The point that says, ‘why is Nnamdi Kanu doing what he is doing’ and how can we make him satisfied?’ We have to speak the truth. Nnamdi Kanu is a Nigerian but he wants to be a Biafran, why? What is so bad with the country that Kanu does not want to be a Nigerian? If we can resolve that answer and get him on the table to say yes, I would like to be a Nigerian, the same way that Odumegwu Ojukwu accepted to be a Nigerian at Aburi in Ghana in 1966, then the Nigerian experiment would be on the road to recovery. Otherwise, we are headed down the hill unless it does something drastic. That is the warning the Nigerian government should heed.