By Ebele Orakpo
Ms. Chinelo Iwenofu is a lawyer turned publisher, writer, freelance journalist, editor and the Managing Director/CEO of Abuja-based AfricAgendA Publications Limited. In this interview with Vanguard in Abuja, Iwenofu speaks on the sate of the nation and the way forward, saying that we either restructure the country or split.
Growing up, what was Nigeria like?
I was taken out of Nigeria during the civil war but we still had close contact with Nigeria as we used to come in often. It looked like Nigeria was going through its rosiest time after the war (the 1970s and 80s.) We were excited about the future of Nigeria. Even though we were being ruled by the military, it looked like they were trying to patch things up and get ready for a very bright future. People seemed to be happier then than now and had more morals and principles then. After the war, there wasn’t a fear of crime as it was not rampant. Even though I was living in the UK, I always had this ambition to come back home to be a part of its development. It was an exciting challenge for me.
How did we get into this mess?
Although the military continued in power but we knew it was a temporary situation. I remember people celebrating when Gen. Sani Abacha died. For Nigerians abroad, it was like Christmas. It made a lot of people to begin to think of going home to build the country. I was practising law, doing a lot of immigration stuff. I remember that during the Babangida and Abacha eras, people were leaving Nigeria and seeking political asylum.
After the death of Abacha, the rate at which people were leaving Nigeria reduced. So from 1999, people were highly optimistic and started going back because nobody really wants to stay abroad. When people start going abroad in large numbers, it means there is a problem. Although I didn’t plan to go back immediately, something made me to decide to go back. I met other Nigerians in the UK who had promising jobs in Nigeria and they encouraged me to come back and promised to help me get a job. I got a letter for a job interview. I came for the interview in 2003 and things started going wrong.
I always thought Nigerians were corrupt; it was quite rampant then but things were still moving. It is worse now. So because of corruption, funds meant for projects were diverted. I only worked for six months and the project ended suddenly. I think they had funds from the World Bank to do this project where they needed the 36 of us to lead each state and I was leading Anambra State. Suddenly, they told us it has been suspended and sent us our final salaries because each of us had 10 people under us whom we had to pay off. We were left alone in the job market.
I also worked for two other companies. I noticed a big demonstration of greed and corruption and I had to resign because they started that nonsense of not paying salary. Some of the junior staff had been sitting there for one year without being paid. I wasn’t prepared for all that so after two months, I put in my resignation letter but I kept the company car as collateral so either they pay me or I sell the car. Eventually, they paid me because they were desperate for their car and I had to do it with the help of the police. That was how I left and it formed a very bad impression.
Then I had to go private. I formed a company and started working for myself, doing what I like which was media publishing, creative writing etc.
Would you say Nigerians are docile?
Docile is not the word. Cowardly is the best-suited word for Nigerians. Every nation has their bad governments, even Europe went through a very terrible time but they overcame. People fought and sacrificed their lives just to get what they wanted. They were not thinking about themselves, they were looking at the bigger picture but Nigerians are always thinking of themselves; always worried about upsetting somebody in higher authority which is understandable but at the same time, when your whole being is being crushed with injustice and poverty, there gets to a point when enough is enough. You have to protest but even simple protest is difficult for us. They say: ‘Oh the Police will beat us or soldiers will shoot us,’ let them come, stand your ground, they too are human, they will give up. I know it’s very difficult but then, people are getting killed everywhere. Do you want to sit down and let the higher authorities kill you for nothing without putting up a fight? That is what seems to be happening now, so it’s not docility to me, it’s cowardice.
One good sign about us is that we are very vibrant and we are mostly a young population with a lot of energy but it’s like they don’t want to rock the boat and the small minority causing all the havoc to know that if they say a word, everybody will run for safety.
How do you think we can get out of the quagmire?
That is a question you should be asking God not me but I can only give my opinion. I think that because of the way our government has entrenched itself with force without necessarily fighting an open war, but in the background, they are using force to entrench themselves, manipulating the system, changing the rules to suit themselves, making a mockery of the democratic process and the laws that we laid down. That’s how they are keeping power and we are afraid because first of all, they have taken over the defence forces – Army, Police, DSS, EFCC, Civil Defence etc.
Our government has gone behind and entrenched people who are loyal to them; people who are carrying guns just to keep other Nigerians in control.
I always wish that a Jerry Rawlings will arise in Nigeria but I know it is very difficult these days. Sometimes, you have to say ‘to hell with the international community,’ just to get your country back in shape, get rid of all the negatives and then surrender to the international community. The international community is not wearing the shoe and doesn’t know where it pinches, therefore, I think we have to make drastic moves – we should be prepared to suffer although we are suffering already. That’s my opinion.
The way things are going, there will be an implosion and explosion soon. You can feel the tension. Again, what is going on with all the killings? Why must Boko Haram be going around killing people and our government has no power to stop them? Killings are going on, especially in the north.
If we ever get the country back under control, whoever comes into government should actually reconstruct the place. We need to be a confederation. Each state needs to be responsible for itself, have its own police and other law enforcement agencies and then contribute to the centre. The Army can be centralised. That way, we would not experience the kind of control we are experiencing now.
Restructure or split
Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with splitting up. Countries are splitting up everywhere. Did you know that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were once one country? They went their separate ways and nobody is complaining, everything is working so what is wrong? Is it because the landmass is not as big as India? What is wrong with us doing that?
There are countries that are smaller than the territory we are talking about, let’s call it the zone. Although this might lead to a habitual splitting up where everybody wants their own country just like the way we ended up having 36 states. I personally think that the two countries will do – North and South, but I know that the South-West would want their own and South-South would want their own. That is the only problem. There is something wrong with Nigeria; it looks like an unholy marriage. Even the Middle Belt does not belong to the north. I would have put them in the south in an ideal world but that’s my opinion. That’s why restructuring is probably the best because it looks like even states in the north are tired of the centre because of all the killings. Zamfara, Kano, Katsina, Borno are not happy so everybody needs to determine themselves and I think that once we restructure, we will be friends again.
Nigerians will start to learn to respect each other like brothers and sisters in their own individual houses not being forced to like each other. As it is now, it’s like a big family being forced to live in one room then they start getting on each other’s nerves. Why not let them have their own flats in the same compound, then they get together once in a while to have dinner or have family meetings and then they go back to their various homes? That will be the restructuring, then the man in Sokoto and the man in Calabar will be able to respect each other.
Familiarity breeds contempt. If we continue to stay together like this, it will get worse.
Something has to be done and fast.